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What Lies Beneath

(Illustration by Ronald Kurniawan)

When I was 17, I badly wanted to find the underground toilet graveyard. I was in college then, and it was rumored that somewhere beneath the UCLA campus was a cavern with a mountain of dead toilet bowls that had either been hurled there by students — as part of some long-forgotten fraternity prank — or decommissioned by the administration. You could only get to the cavern by creeping through the university’s network of service and steam tunnels. Which were down a rickety ladder. Through an unmarked door. Which was in the Biology building. Or Math Sciences. Maybe. In a campus so large it has its own ZIP code. Anyone caught “tunneling” (as it was called in Freshman parlance) around in the vast subterranean maze would be swiftly expelled.

Or so the legend went.

Lectures and labs and term papers eventually replaced my toilet-bowl fantasies, but to this day the lure of the underground persists. In our city of false faces, it is the dream of an alternate reality lurking beneath the surface, the mother lode missed by inches, so near and yet so far. Dig long and hard enough, any 5-year-old will tell you, and you’ll get all the way to China.

Our modern metropolis is rife with tales of old-time buried treasure: A leather satchel stuffed with rubies, emeralds and diamonds, engulfed by the concrete parking lot at the Hollywood Bowl, stashed there by a lone sheepherder centuries ago, after he nicked it from agents of the Mexican emperor Maximilian. Three metal Wells Fargo bank safes of gold bullion that sank in Los Angeles Harbor in 1863 with the Ada Hancock (when either its boiler room or gunpowder cargo exploded). A ledge of gold in the San Gabriel Wash, running between Monrovia and Azusa, into which Fish Canyon empties, where a goat herder snagged a chunk of quartz-bearing gold — to this day flecks of gold are still discovered there by weekend prospectors. There is said to be a river of gold running through the San Gabriels, accessible through Mount Disappointment in Pasadena, from whence a Native American man used to descend, satchel of gold nuggets in hand. He would go to a local tavern and drink until the satchel was empty. Each time the white men tried to follow him back to the source. And each time they would lose him in the foothills. Of course he refused to reveal the location. Of course the white men eventually killed him.

The one about the pot of gold buried near a tree on the grounds of Immaculate Heart High School — said to have been hidden there by the bandit Joaquin Murieta — is particularly poignant. Every so often, the sisters awake in the morning to find that fresh holes have been dug up during the night.

That these stories have endured speaks to the power of their appeal. We hope that the ordinary world can still surprise us. That with equal parts persistence and luck, plain old dirt must eventually give way to riches.

this year, a massive renovation program began at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and during construction, they accidentally dug up a paleontological gold mine of bones. Workers churned the earth. In great hunks of asphalt, they hauled out the remains of mountain lions, mammoths, saber-toothed cats, camels, bison, horses, wolves, millipedes, snails and sloths. That’s how it happens: You’re working toward one thing and stumble upon something else entirely.

Like the sightings reported by migrants traveling up from Mexico of a ghostly Spanish galleon resting on the desert floor, somewhere in the border area between California and Baja, buried treasures are creatures of the mind. They exist where the real meets the unreal. As the story goes, the galleon, sent on a pearl-harvesting expedition by King Philip III, sailed into a large inland sea off the Mexican coast, its captain fatally lured by the fertile oyster beds within. Already heavy with pearls, the vessel became landlocked when an earthquake altered the surrounding topography. Unable to navigate out, the crew abandoned ship. In the decades following the Civil War, soldiers traveling north spoke of a strange vessel bleached white by the sun, perched atop a dead sea of white salt. It’s a vision out of a dream: the skeletal ship stuck in the middle of God’s nowhere, its masts pointed skyward, no water for days. Allegedly, an old man even sheltered in it one night, unaware of the precious cargo within. When he returned later, the phantom ship had disappeared, swallowed up by the ever-shifting sands.

At Disneyland, the new Space Mountain whips my head back, as a different ship — a tiny fake one from Tomorrowland — glides smoothly on parallel tracks through the blackness. Somewhere in the park, rumor holds, Walt Disney’s cryogenically frozen severed head and/or corpse slumbers in its secret burial spot, awaiting the happy day when medical science will finally be able to transform tumor into healthy flesh. “Beneath the Pirates of the Caribbean ride,” says the handsome young Asian man at Guest Relations when I ask, “or under the Sleeping Beauty's Castle, are the places where people usually think he is. But Walt’s actually at Forest Lawn in Glendale.” Nearby, a kid nibbles thoughtfully at the ears of his Mickey Mouse popsicle. We both want to believe the creator is close at hand.

It is a balmy evening when, walking home from dinner in Westwood, an old college friend and I take an unfamiliar shortcut, past the Pierce Brothers Memorial Cemetery, hidden in a small plot beside the library. Our university days are long gone, and we wonder sometimes if we have done the right things, made the right choices in our respective lives, Ryan and I. Is there potential inside us as yet untapped, resources as yet unmarshalled? We eat. Sleep. Defecate. Procreate. The daily grind. Is this all there is to all there is? The future stretches out before us on a hazy tangent, sensed but unseen.

A guard watches us placidly from a distance as we tiptoe through the Garden of Serenity. Los Angeles’ greatest wealth is perhaps its people, the 4 million souls who seek their fortunes in a city that is kind one day and cruel the next. On the north side, in the Room of Prayer, across from the Sanctuary of Tranquility mausoleum, lies Marilyn Monroe, whose final resting place Joe DiMaggio picked for its obscurity. Lipstick kisses dot her tomb in shades of pink and red, stains of devotion. We case the gravestones of the famous and infamous, the long-lost scene makers, the ones who rocked the world or died trying: Mel Torme, Eva Gabor, John Cassavetes, Truman Capote. Armand Hammer presides above them all in a crypt of his own, carved out of the same dove-gray marble as his museum down the street. We return to dirt, but we come from it also. I run my fingers over Dean Martin’s last words, engraved in the Corridor of Love: “Everybody loves somebody sometime.” An anonymous soul in the crypt above him counters: “This too shall pass.”

UCLA Toilet Bowl Graveyard, campus location unknown, Westwood, ?(310) 825-4321

Hollywood Bowl 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood, (323) 850-2000

Port of Los Angeles off Harbor (110) Freeway, San Pedro Bay

San Gabriel Wash from Azusa Ave. to Foothill Blvd. to Fish Canyon Rd., ?San Gabriel Canyon Area

MOUNT Disappointment from Angeles Crest Highway to Mount Wilson ?Observatory Rd., Pasadena

Immaculate Heart High School 5515 Franklin Ave., Los Feliz, (323) 461-3651

The Boneyard Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 ?Wilshire Blvd., L.A., (323) 857-6000

Lost Spanish Galleon near the Salton Sea, or somewhere ?between California & Baja, Mexico

Disneyland Guest Relations at City Hall on Main St., ?1313 S. Harbor Blvd., Anaheim, (714) 999-4565

Pierce Brothers Memorial Cemetery 1218 Glendon Ave., Westwood, (310) 474-1579


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