This doesn't happen to me very often. But this morning I was thinking about, of all people, Lindsay Lohan.
It wasn't her nude spread in New York Magazine. Though, I admit I did look when that came out a few weeks back.
No, what crossed my mind today regarding the troubled starlet was the sentence she received for her recent brush with drunk driving and cocaine. She did 84 minutes in jail, went through rehab and reportedly served 80 hours of community service with the American Red Cross. She also spent four hours at a hospital emergency room.
It's the last little bit of her sentence still to come that I can relate to. Sometime in June, Lohan will spend four hours at the Los Angeles County morgue on Mission Road. Most of her time will be in a classroom watching the kinds of gory films they show you in driver training.
At some point, the moment will come that everyone in the room quietly dreads. The teacher will caution everyone to be respectful toward what they are about to see. Then they'll line up and file downstairs.
Not many journalists have been on what they call, euphemistically, the service floor at Mission Road. But a few years ago, I did the kind of walk-through that Lohan will do. I was on assignment for Smithsonian magazine. It would be overstatement to say I'm haunted by the sights. But no matter why you are there, the scene stays with you. Even a 21-year-old movie star who thinks nothing of getting behind the wheel while under the influence will have a hard time shrugging it off.
Before you enter, they give you disposable gloves and paper booties for your feet. Things can get a little messy when you are shuffling past hundreds of human remains. We also were given a paper mask, but it's just to fend off germs. It does nothing to cut down the smell.
There's really no delicate way to convey this. The morgue, any morgue, smells like you think it might. It leaves an unmistakable imprint on your brain, and it hits you long before you catch a glimpse of your first corpse.
Breathe through your mouth, our escort advised. You get used to it.
I was lucky. It was winter. When Lohan is scheduled to visit in June, they tell me it's possible things could be a little … riper. Depends on the condition of the remains brought in off the streets. The longer they're out there, well, you know.
Once a body is brought in, it's wrapped in clear plastic sheeting, tied with rope and tagged. Since the LA County morgue is a seriously overcrowded place -- or was when I was there -- the corpses are not neatly put away as you might expect.
They're stacked on gurneys and tables, moved around, and sometimes left out in hallways. As you walk through the floor, you see faces. You see where the old legend comes from about hair and nails growing after death. They don't, but the skin dries and withdraws, creating the impression.
In the autopsy room, bodies are worked on in a semi-seated position, not prone like you see on TV.
Again, the image of a body being opened up is something you can imagine and be pretty true to real life. Just add in that human body fat is orangy yellow in color.
On her walk through, Lohan might see a room where technicians harvest eyeballs. We weren't given too close a look at that operation. I was glad for that. The young offenders who I accompanied lost their bravado pretty fast in the presence of all that death. Any last cockiness melted when we got to the corner of any icy crypt where the shelves got smaller.
They reminded me of the little cubbies you see in pre-school classrooms. Nobody had to ask what were in the tiny bundles of plastic.
For KCRW this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.