My wife was still in dreamland on the motel pillow when
I woke up. It was dawn in Cayucos, the small, perfect beach town three hours
north of L.A. that nobody knows about. The beach was right there, at this sort
of dead-end street that gave way to the sand where the high tide had left massive
swaths of bruise-colored seaweed. I stepped into it, and was immediately attacked
by thousands of flies. Seaweed flies. Insidious motherfuckers. They didn’t simply
fly, they rose like helicopters, straight up, buzzing their shrill National
Geographic insect hate tone all around my head. I began swatting and running.
I felt like a helpless carcass of a veldt beast, wounded and flailing in terror.
About eight feet later the flies forgot about me. The bastards
hunkered back down into their seaweed beds as quickly as they had risen. That’s
when I noticed things looked a bit blurry. Oh yes, my glasses were gone, knocked
off in my Don Knotts freak-spasm. I went back to look for them. I no longer
gave a shit about the flies and leaned into the kelp. A few dozen zoomed up,
but I waved them off casually, swiftly.
Then I found the glasses, lying in the seaweed next to a rib cage.
Yes, as in rib cage.
Index-finger-thick white bones in slightly curving vertical rows,
sticking out of a chunk of seaweed. There was some decayed, gray, meatlike matter
clinging to the spine.
I picked up the glasses and looked through them at those ribs.
Picked clean by innocent sea creatures, one would guess, bones that once held
guts and buttressed a beating heart. I can tell you right now, I wanted those
bones to be human. Why? I’m not a morbid guy, I’ve never rented Faces of
Death, I don’t slow down for car wrecks. But still . . .
I blame Bill Curtis.
You know who I’m talking about, the frothy, drama-queen host of
Investigative Reports, Cold Case Files and American Justice. I
got sucked into his true-crime cable cult and quickly became a heavy user. I
followed my insatiable jones to other, non-Curtis shows: Forensic Files,
Masterminds, The Investigators, City Confidential, North Mission Road. And
of course Body of Evidence, stories taken from the files of the shellacked-blond
crime-solving goddess Dayle Hinman. Watch enough of this stuff, and you almost
need to find a body.
Growing up in L.A., it almost seems inevitable. I was six when
the Manson people entered pop culture, when Mommy warned me to stay away from
the hippies. (To this day I detest hippies.) Being a local girl, she had vintage
stories of her own: the Black Dahlia, and Caryl Chessman, the Red Light Bandit.
Bandit — how quaint. Those were the days.
In the following decades, the headlines christened various splashy
psychopaths as they popped up with their unique spats of horror. Stalkers, stranglers,
slashers, killers of all types. Their works were unavoidable, and they made
an impression on me.
So, there I was on the beach, looking at this calm, wretched display,
ready for it at last. I had found my body. This moment had to be shared. I went
back to the motel, entered the room quietly and said:
“Honey? There’s a rib cage on the beach.”
My wife sleeps like a log, if you can envision a log being beautiful.
But her addiction to true crime surpasses even mine, and she woke up instantly,
grabbed her camera and followed me out the door. I led her to the rib cage,
then went back to the motel and found the lady who runs the joint. I filled
her in. She was stunned, shocked, excited. She offered me a bagel, then picked
up the phone, looked at me and said, “Who do I call?”
I didn’t know. I told her 911. She punched it in and said, “Some
tourists have discovered a skeleton on the beach!”
Now, when I hear “skeleton,” I think of the lank and
dangling “Mr. Bones” fun-house variety that scared Shemp Howard in
all those Three Stooges shorts. I tried to tell her this wasn’t that. She offered
me a rake and said the cops would arrive soon. I went back to the rib cage,
where my wife was snapping away, horrified and entranced. A cop car pulled up,
and out stepped one Officer Fields. A young chap with a crewcut. He took the
rake from me and poked at the bones.
“I think this is a dog,” he said. “But I’ll collect
it and find out.”
Just then a wave came in and embraced the rib cage and seaweed,
pulling the whole mess slowly back toward the sea.
“Aren’t you going to get it?” I asked. I mean, this
thing had to be analyzed by the proper authorities, right? Fields squinted at
the Pacific Ocean.
He handed me the rake, got into his squad car and drove off. My
wife and I stood there, crestfallen, robbed. Some other people walked up, a
tourist family. The dad was sipping a Diet Pepsi and wearing a T-shirt against
his gut that said, “Prison Bowling Team — I’ve Got Time To Spare.”
He examined the evidence. He pointed.
“Look. No pelvic bone. There should be a great big pelvic
bone if it’s a person.”
“So you think it’s a dog?”
He swigged the Pepsi.
“A damn big dog.”
Another wave rolled in and drew the rib cage of a damn big dog
closer to the water. We all just looked at it.
Resistance and Revelry
When Pastor Bill Gibbons recently lost the lease for his
church on Skid Row, he took a page from the members of his congregation and
turned up on the street. Not with bags, and clothes and all worldly possessions,
but with chairs, and Bibles and a guitar. “The ministry will go on,”
he said, “wherever God wants it.”
So it did on a recent Sunday, despite the steady rain that swept
through the city, clearing the streets of all but the most stubborn pedestrians,
including the thousands of homeless. Judging from the activity at the corner
of Main and Fifth streets, where people gathered to either drink booze, offer
drugs or just hang out, it might have been a sunny day. One woman danced wildly
with no shoes, her socks soaked from the wet sidewalk.
There was an added attraction: Across the street a crew was filming
a commercial for the video game Doom, a popular title that promises players
“an epic struggle against pure evil.” Half a block away, Gibbons was
engaged in his own version. “The enemy, Satan, is always trying to come
and take you back,” he intoned between verses of Exodus. “You have
But with all that was going on, his service was easy to miss,
especially when, to get out of the rain, the group retreated into the cluttered
entryway of the Regent Theater — right next door to the former home of Gibbons’
Bread of Life Church. Now a warehouse, the Regent used to show triple-X movies.
Gibbons credits his ministry’s prayers for shutting the theater down.
Gibbons didn’t blame the weather for the low turnout — aside from
his wife, her son, and a worship leader named Will, there were only three other
congregants at the beginning of his service. He’s noticed that people come to
church less often when they have money, and welfare checks come at the first
of the month. Of the three homeless people present, one was in a wheelchair
and another was wrapped in a blue tarp to keep warm. Two of them were either
deep in rapture or falling asleep.
As the pastor’s energy picked up, though, so did attendance. Soon
the congregation had grown to 14 people, with Gibbons frequently interrupting
his sermon to invite people walking by. He seemed to know everyone by name.
“Kevin, come on in, have a seat.” And the others would shift to make
There was singing, responsive reading and reciting. And occasionally
there was a request for clarification (“What was that you said about the
darkness and the light?”), or for affirmation (“But God will only
help you if you are willing to take the first step, right?”)
Gibbons punctuated his points with either a high-five or the rhetorical
“Pretty awesome, huh?” His consistent message was that the Lord was
fighting for them — a fact that, given the congregation’s current situation,
could have been lost on a bystander. But if it appeared that God had forsaken
them, it was clear that the pastor had not. He has been serving them for the
past 14 years.
Gibbons began his ministry on the corner of Palmetto and Seaton
in front of an onion warehouse, where he would pass out food during the services.
Soon he earned the name Hot Dog Man. (On Sunday he wasn’t serving hot dogs,
but a dozen slender burritos.) He also became known for his Skid Row tours,
a program he started after establishing his ministry there in ’96. Aimed mostly
at kids, it’s his version of Scared Straight.
As a reward for his hard work, Gibbons has been stabbed more than
once, had threats made on his life and has been evicted from his property. But
he can’t resist the call to be out on the streets and ministering to the homeless.
“My heart’s here. I love the people who are down here,” he says. “God
has blessed me, and I want to return that blessing to these people.”
The service ended with a unique kind of communion: pieces of Keebler
Club crackers and water served in medicine cups. Then the 14-member congregation
stood, raised their hands and joined Gibbons in revelry.