Pierce Brothers Memorial Park in Westwood Village has the so-called cremains of Merv Griffin, Farah Fawcett, Peggy Lee, Marilyn Monroe and lots of other TV and motion picture types and titans. It’s just walking distance from the first apartment my parents and I lived in.
Now, decades later, my parents Ellen and Marty Michel are back in their original hood; that is, their ashes are. There’s no plaque or monument; they were both plopped into the dirt of the small patch that is the rose garden. My mom died of cancer in her mid-70s. My dad died of old age 3 years ago, more than a dozen years after my mom (and nearly that much her senior). He was 98.
Dad’s dying became the rhythm behind my visits from my home in New York’s Hudson Valley to his rented apartment in L.A.: the same apartment he’d rented for more than 50 years. Dad’s dying also became the impetus behind finally recording him.
Ironically, I was working on “Live?Die?Kill?:Los Angeles” for KCRW’s UnFictional. I’d been asking strangers about what they lived for, and what they would die and kill for. But I’d never asked my dad.
For years, post-9/11 when I lived in Brooklyn, close enough to the Twin Towers to walk to them in an easy half an hour and close enough to have heard the first airplane crashing into them, I’d been driving around the country with my husband, asking strangers those three questions about their beliefs and values and composing some of the answers into radio programs and live performances. That need to ask about the fundamentals came from months of breathing the DNA of dead people as I stood outside my door.
Ultimately, I needed to go back to the place I grew up, Los Angeles, to find out what folks felt about life and death in a city not necessarily associated so much with deep thought as with deep concept.
Of course, that’s a bogus notion.
I covered L.A. asking those questions. I asked dog-walking actors at the La Brea Tar Pits, the cowboy-booted Director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, saffron robed devotees at the Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine, a sarong-wearing man with a bone through his nose who sent his two huge barking shepherds to greet me, the proprietor of a medical marijuana dispensary who was sure we’d hung out as teenagers, a septuagenarian body builder who posed for me and the mirror, the earnest principal of my old high school (Uni Hi), an artist so stoned after eating a medicinal cookie that he literally collapsed into my arms as his head just missed hitting the concrete floor, a bass-toting teenager wearing a black t-shirt that had “I heart Jesus” printed on it, a respected scientist who studied longevity and dozens more.
When I asked the teenager what he lived, died, and would kill for, he just pointed upward for each answer. The body builder said he’d shoot himself if he got ugly, his body no longer something he was proud of. The medical marijuana proprietor told me about her bout with cancer and her brutal, ongoing treatments that let her live.
I was surprised by the answers, by how willing strangers were to reveal themselves and to think and talk about topics more often kept quiet.
Then, I had the challenge to make sense of these answers, to distill the many hours of honesty into a half hour of radio. And also then, my father was clearly dying. And it was time to ask him those questions, too. It was tough.
In his 90s, he cried while talking about his impending death. It was only the second time I’d ever seen him cry; the first was when he talked about having to give up golf because his balance had gone and he couldn’t swing a club anymore. No golf=death.
I kept recording my dad, asking him about living, dying and killing. Killing was a bit scary: He said that if anyone ever did anything to me they’d be dead. He’d arrange it. And I didn’t doubt it. In World War II he had killed, sometimes with a knife, not that he talked about it. He did say he’d been a gigolo in Florida as a young man and worked for the mob as an older one; as a child he spent his mornings before school stunning the cows on their way to his parents slaughter house, behind their home. He grew up killing.
I grew up thinking about death. It wasn’t just my father; my mother and her immediate family had escaped Nazi Germany in December 1939. Growing up, she told me about the Holocaust, about relatives removed, deprivations and humiliations. Death lived in our home, and that seemed right.
Still, while putting together this radio program where over and over again I had to listen to stories about death and life, and my father, now dead, talking away; I’ve been mourning again, a lot.
But I’m glad that I had to do it. In large part because I learned about my childhood home from the distance of many years.
As I look forward to making “Live?Die?Kill?:L.A” a live performance, and put this story to bed, I catch myself making a gesture my father often made: bending my right wrist, and using my hand, paw-like, to brush something, usually nothing, away from my face. A face that looks a lot like his.
Karen Michel is a documentarian, journalist, educator and transmedia artist. Most of her work is heard on public radio, including cultural features for NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered. For the past few years, she’s developed performance documentaries melding recorded audio, her text, photographs and ephemera, especially for her versions of Live?Die?Kill?: 3 Questions in Various Geographies.