Photo by Ted SoquiIt is a bad idea, history has shown, to encourage a million or so Germans to gather in one place. It is a worse idea still to give them all whistles. Consider last Saturday’s Love Parade, a gargantuan beer fest and techno party that has coated Berlin’s central park in urine and fun fur every summer for the last 13 years, leaving the city’s collective inner ear thudding for hours after to the THUNKA-THUNKA of the techno beat, and bleeding incessantly from all the fucking whistles.
I am not a fan of techno. I have never sought out raves in downtown warehouses or hidden corners of the desert. But I’m far from home and the Love Parade sounded different, like something with maybe a little utopian spark to it. “Join the Love Republik,” begged the video monitors in the subway between cell-phone ads. A million kids brought together by love, even just by love of techno and platform-soled sneakers, seemed a spectacle worth catching. The day of the event, though, the news that a protester has been killed by police in Europe’s other grand carnival predisposes me against the parade — why aren’t these technokids showing their love by heading to Genoa to topple capitalism like good teens should?
Genoa seems far away, however, at the Alexanderplatz metro station, where hundreds of kids have gathered, preening on the platform, applying glitter here, blue hairspray there, wrapping shreds of tin foil around individual spikes of hair for the maximally Martian look, fluffing their pink-fur miniskirts . . . and whistling. Chrome whistles hang from nearly all their necks by neon-green and -pink strings, and at any given moment, several dozen are blowing into the things with the full force of their adolescent lungs. The resulting racket is more irritating than you can fathom, especially when produced not on a wide subway platform, but in a narrow, tiled tunnel perfectly acoustically designed for the maximum ricocheting of high-volume screeching. When we arrive at the parade site, I am more than ready to firebomb the Love Republik.
The parade itself traces the road that bisects the park, a road long ago widened by one Adolf Hitler to accommodate huge military processions — and, in the unforeseen future, masses of teens dancing robotically and swilling half-liter cans of beer. Twenty-five trucks, each with a different corporate sponsor, pull flatbed trailers from which amusingly named DJs (e.g., DJ Größen) mix their magic and broadcast it to the teeming masses through speakers the size of queen-size beds. THUMPA-THUMPA. They slowly circle the park until the evening, when the party concentrates itself around the Siegessäule, a frighteningly ugly stone column topped by a predatory-looking golden winged figure, built as a monument to Prussian military might. This doesn’t seem to bother anyone.
I look for signs of love along the parade route, but among hordes and hordes of Love Paraders, I find precious little. I see two men playfully dry-humping, which is encouraging, and several couples making out, but very few people display the prototypical hugsy-cuddly behavior that Ecstasy brings out. Most, I learn when I attempt to cross the street against the flow, behave exactly as you would expect young men who’ve been drinking for hours to behave: like louts. The Love Republik smells of beer and sweat and diesel fumes, and it wriggles like one great worm to the endless THUMPA-THUMPA-THUMPA of the beat.
I look for signs of love in the park adjoining the parade route. I see a few scared-looking kids sitting in the back of a police van — busted for whistling? I see a lot of people peeing on trees, passed out on the grass, or looking very dehydrated and unhappy lying on the grass. I see a good number of people looking somewhat happier smoking hash in small circles, a few holdouts dancing alone among the trees, an excessively happy-looking woman skillfully cutting lines of white powder on the back of a cigarette pack, and only a very few people cuddling and kissing and doing anything that looks at all like loving.
A quarter-mile out of the park, the crowd is thinner, but there are still thousands of Love Republikans walking to and from the parade route. The screeching of whistles fills the air, punctuated by the crunch and scrape of beer cans underfoot. A police car pushes its way through, its siren blaring. The kids know what to do — they blow their whistles in tune with the siren, wave their arms in the air and dance.
What the River Found
I’ve walked the same stretch of the Los Angeles River hundreds of times. I start near the Hyperion bridge and walk south toward Fletcher, sometimes along the high asphalt road, sometimes down on the concrete lip by the water. Last Sunday, I walked the high road down to Fletcher with my dog, cut down to the river and started back. We came across a pair of perfectly good men’s black tasseled loafers. It looked as someone had just stepped out of them. Nobody was in sight. Farther up, a computer monitor sat upended, a yard from the water.
In the eight years I’ve lived in Atwater Village, I’ve seen many things along the river: couches and chairs, and many shopping carts. It’s something of a neighborhood sport to send carts off the bridges and into the drink. Nose down, wheels in the air, they strain out rocks and vegetal clumps and eventually form small, trapezoidal islands. I’ve also come across all manner of abandoned clothing, plus sleeping bags, blankets, mattresses. I found a wallet emptied of money and ID, still stuffed with pictures of dark-eyed, round-cheeked children. Several times I’ve stumbled upon whole, oddly butchered chickens, courtesy of the local Santería worshippers. I recently gave wide berth to a dog-size black plastic sack oozing dark blood. Once, as I walked along the water’s edge, something caught my eye, and there, just underwater, on the slick algae-brown shelf, trembling in the current, was an entire offering: three oranges, two bright-green apples, two large potatoes, all on a shifting bed of white rice and red beans and bright metallic-wrapped candies — turquoise, lime green, copper, and strawberry pink.
North of the Hyperion bridge is the only pedestrian bridge across the Los Angeles River. Years ago, before my time, a young woman threw herself off of it. She left a â note saying she’d been lonely. I read about it in a poem by an Atwater resident.
Today, as we walked upstream, the dog sniffed tufts of bunch grass that broke through the concrete. A killdeer, pretending to be hurt, dragged her wing along the ground, successfully inciting the terrier to chase her. She flew off with a piercing, haunting cry, only to repeat the trick several more times. All right, enough already, I told her. We’re not going to eat your babies.
We were almost back to the Hyperion bridge when two other walkers, with a large German shepherd, called me over. “There’s a body there, just beyond that tree,” they said. “It could be somebody sleeping, but a bird walked on him, so he might be dead.”
A dead person was not exactly what I wanted to see on a Sunday morning, but I walked up to have a look. There, on a small island, was a big humpish thing: a shoulder, outstretched arm and grayish hand, all clearly visible. Years and years ago, I’d seen a body pulled from the river in Iowa City, bloated, bluish gray and naked. This body didn’t look naked, but there was a familiar swollen largeness to it. As I watched, a crow hopped close to it, then onto the shoulder. I had my cell phone. I punched in 911. It rang and rang. A taped message came on and told me that many people often report the same accident. I hoped so. I hoped authorities had already heard all about the body in the river, and I was just another pesky caller. After about two minutes, a dispatcher picked up. She connected me to a man in the Fire Department. I said, “I’m looking at what I think is a dead body. It could be a dummy, but I thought I should report it.” The man asked for cross streets — he’d never heard of the Hyperion bridge.
“Will you stick around, or are you going home?” he asked.
“Going home,” I said, happy for the option, relieved not to have to see more than I already had. He asked for my cell-phone number.
Nobody called to tell me anything — I didn’t really expect them to. Several times during the day I wondered what kind of life could end alone, awash in the Los Angeles River, with birds hopping on you.
Late that afternoon, on my way to the store, I saw a fire truck parked on Glendale Boulevard, just yards from the Hyperion bridge. Firemen were doing something with the hydrant. I pulled over and got out. “Hey,” I said to the fellows in uniform. “Did you find a body in the river today? I’m the person who called.”
“Naw,” said one young guy.
Another fireman came over. “You the one who called?”
Before I could answer, the first fireman told me what they had found: “It was a big stuffed bear.”
“The guys were gonna call you back — at 3 in the morning!” said the second fireman. He laughed.
“Some other people saw it too,” I said, defensive. “But I was the one with the cell phone.”
“It was a good call, actually,” the first fireman said. “It had the look of a drowned person. I looked and looked at it through my binoculars and I couldn’t tell. Finally, I sent a big guy down to get it.” He shook his head.
Thus, a lonely, anonymous urban death turned out to be a sodden heap of stuffed fake fur. This being Atwater, though, it could’ve gone either way.
I thanked the firemen. Then I got back in my car and went to the store.
At the Comicon
I stood beside Vader. “Darth,” I believe, is how his slender, pigtailed companion addressed him. His cape rippling in the wind just outside the San Diego Convention Center, Vader breathed deep and scratchy through the (slightly rusty) vent on his mask. Impressive. Then Vader’s cell phone rang. “How do you work this thing?” he whined in a nasal, slightly effeminate voice. One fantasy deflated.
I didn’t wear a costume, or even a mask, to the 32nd Comicon, the massive annual gathering of the comic-book industry and associated businesses (video games, toys, collectibles, film, what’s left of the dot-com/flash-animation outlets). But plenty of others did — everyone from eager, scrubbed college kids and young/hip/Ghost World types, to hardcore fanboys and computer geeks. X-Men’s Wolverine was still big this year. Generic goth-fairies, dinosaurs, Batmen and Catwomen munched hot dogs and pizza at the food stands. Klingons sized up imperial storm troopers over Mrs. Fields’ Cookies.
Out on the floor, the convention center was a veritable buzzing, hissing hive of consumerism. Some 50,000 people from all over the country snaked through a maze of booths hawking action figures, vintage movie posters, fanzines, sci-fi/fantasy/horror memorabilia, autographed photos, rare books, original artwork. EBay, Yahoo! and Amazon had booths, promoting themselves as venues to auction off the very same collectibles people were collecting at the convention. Japanese anime, manga and other paraphernalia — stickers, tattoos, T-shirts, superballs, even silk pajamas. And free stuff. Everybody was vying for free stuff. At the Spawn.com booth, reps tossed plastic action figures into the crowd, watching as people dived for the toys as if they were foul balls.
At the Simpsons booth, a bald and stubby middle-aged man in a Duke University T-shirt, tube socks and loafers squinted contemplatively at a pile of Bart Simpson viewfinders. “Never seen the show,” he muttered to his buddy. “But for $2, yeah. It’d look good on my desk at the office.”
“What’d you get?” asked a guy behind me in line at the ATM. From the tone of his voice I could just tell he was standing on his tiptoes and peering over my shoulder, into my bag.
“A hat, some T-shirts, stickers,” I said.
He nodded, then carefully lifted a print from his portfolio case, smiling proudly and balancing the corners delicately, so as not to smudge the ink.
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“An original, signed John Byrne page,” he said. “$110.”
Later, I spotted a pack of slickly dressed, goateed, cell-phone-wielding Hollywood types circling the periphery of the convention, mining it for material and stuffing their backpacks with comics. “What’s it called? Okay. I’ll take three,” one said, snapping open his wallet. His sidekick leaned in: “It’s like a buddy story, but set in space.”
“Nooo!” wailed a 6-year-old boy wearing a Pooh Bear outfit and pounding his little fists on the carpet. Did he want a toy? A cookie? To stop Hollywood’s cynical appropriation of his favorite comic? A nap? He couldn’t say. His father scooped him up by the armpits and dragged him out of the Con, shrieking.