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A couple weeks ago, the Urban Man was feeling a little depressed, so I decided to cheer myself up by going for a stroll by the L.A. River.
Those of you who know L.A. might find this…odd. You know our "river" is actually a slimy trickle in a big cement ditch, a storm sewer running behind chain-link fences in poor neighborhoods and industrial zones. Not exactly an uplifting sight, especially if you know that once upon a time, this was a genuine river, a free and willful beast, shifting across a wide, grassy plain. If you know that Indians once partied on its banks.
Me, I came because on that day it was raining hard and had been for almost a week. And sometimes, when it rains really, really hard, the L.A. River becomes a wild thing again.
Here in L.A., rain always brings metaphor. Sometimes it's the promise of new life after a nine-month summer. Sometimes a tip-off that you're in a noir movie. Sometimes a drumbeat like the end of the world. That day it was raining enough to bring out the media in their yellow slickers, gasping happily into wet mics and splashed lenses.
They were predicting plenty of metaphor—and me, I was hoping to see the river roaring and pawing, maybe clawing itself right out of its concrete cage.
I thought the sight might, you know, inspire my L.A. soul.
I once had lunch with Lewis MacAdams, the poet who leads the Friends of the L.A. River, and he told me about his complex relationship with our captive stream. How the first time he saw it, he knew his life would be bound up with its fate—and that, although the river would always have to be tamed by the Army Corps of Engineers, it could be re-imagined and reconfigured as some beautiful if no longer wild thing.
I smiled politely and thought…who but a poet could have a complex relationship with a sewer drain? And when I read his excellent book, I admit I paid most attention to lines about stormy days. I figured it might always take a solid downpour before our river—if it is still a river—re-asserts a personality.
I've been told that people like to watch big acts of nature—tornados, hurricanes, rising waters—because in witnessing something larger and wilder than ourselves we escape the terrible possibility of our own omnipotence. If we were "all powerful," goes the theory, we would bear the whole burden of our lives.
If that's true, you shouldn't blame people who gather to watch disaster or flood. Maybe they've come not just for cheap thrills, but a strange kind of solace.
In any case, when the storm hit hardest, the Urban Man left his office, and headed for the nearest bridge.
At first, I was excited to see three or four others gathered at the rail. But lo, when I ran to join them, I was disappointed to find that while the river was running high, it was running tamely, even meekly within its banks.
A guy was there with a fancy camera on a tripod, covered by a tarp. He and I stood together for a while, but we didn't speak. After all, what would we say? What a bummer that no big-hearted waves threatened our bridge? That no dogs were clinging to tree trunks? No helicopter rescues underway? No cars washed to the sea?
We couldn't say, "Isn't it a drag that once again it's the engineers who have proven omnipotent."
At one o'clock, the Urban Man drove back to face the inevitability of his own afternoon—but yes, like many Angelenos, I checked the weather often, in the guilty hope that a bigger rain might be on its way.
Copyright © 2008 Marc Porter Zasada. All Rights Reserved.
Photo of Lewis MacAdams: Friends of the LA River
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