The End of the River: An Experiment   1 comment

Here’s the experiment: I’m working on a section of a book that combines fiction and non-fiction. In the hopes of getting some feedback on the experiment, I’m posting the first couple parts of the first chapter here. Let me know what you think. If it goes well, I may post more, in serial format.

Fiction & Paradox: The End of the River

You can drive out nature with a pitch fork

But it always comes roaring back again.

— Tom Waits, “Misery Is the River of the World”


Of all the ways of paradoxes, perhaps the quaintest

is their capacity on occasion to turn out to be so

very much less frivolous than they look.

— W.V. Quine, “The Ways of Paradox”


Here I sit, near the end, & begin river meditations, surface sliding by, motes of detritus afloat slipping & oozing by, micro-flotsam, some things glide just below the surface, some stumble along the bed, each layer at different rate manifesting lamination, lamentation for decomposition & decay. Chicken bones, cell phones, balls & skitter. Carts & tumleweed, flags of shredded plastic, high-heel shoe, cd player, flattened traffic cones. Delights, cracks, transition & transience, accumulation, care, getting by, getting on, going down. A conduit & not a destination for most. Home & homeless. It all goes down the river. The collected tears for all the suffering. And the birds feed in the tears. The helmeted cyclists fly past going & coming. Images of objects in water: ghostly, between substance & shadow, lost souls of things & the lost things of souls.

— O. Titus Bromide, Fieldnotes for “The End of the River”



When is a river not a river? When it is less than a river, its bed dustier than it is wet? When it is more than a river, in flood, vast and catastrophic? When it has “been paved into irrelevancy”?[1] When officials deem it a Flood Control Channel? When it is removed to the darker recesses of human consciousness? Many of these various “ends” of the Los Angeles River—ways in which a river ceases to be a river—have been explored or exploited in fiction about the L.A. basin, from literary treatments of the absence and/or overabundance of water in and around the official course of the river to film-shoots on its concrete bed near Sixth Street. While it is a commonplace that fiction can enrich history through its manipulation of narrative, image, setting, character, etc., there by “bringing history to life,” as we say, one of literature’s chief assets is its facility for revealing and confronting paradoxes in our ways of thinking—about history, nature, truth…. In this section, I consider fictional treatments of the conceptual end of the river (that is, when it ceases to be considered “a real river”) in relation to the physical end of the river (its demise as a body of water).

[1] Morrison and Lamonica 34.

Chapter 1. The Mouth

{1.1} Captain S.J. Taciturn was working the daywatch out of Long Beach Fire Department Station No. 1. With his shoulders slightly hunched and his brow stiff, he was following what looked to me like giant skid marks, great scouring scuffs in the ground slanting down toward the bank of the Los Angeles River. He paused about fifty feet from the river and looked back to where the marks began, at the base of an immense sign. Enormous letters in white paint, printed in typescript across the black billboard, stood forth boldly enough that I could read them over Taciturn’s shoulder:

It was a mere trickle most of the year. A municipal joke even.

But a rainstorm would awaken the snake and give it power.

                                    —Connelly, The Narrows

The sign, I had been told, marked the spot where not long before a Jayco fifth-wheel had been parked, the vacation home of an older couple from Winona, Minnesota. The gouge from the sign to the river corresponded in width to approximately the length of the Jayco, suggesting that the trailer had been dragged sideways over the embankment, to be replaced by a billboard bearing a literary fragment. I mumbled something about none of this making any sense, and the captain responded with a sort of “it’s-par-for-the-course” shrug before walking on down to the river.

{1.2} The Los Angeles River ends, at least for now, in the city of Long Beach. You can follow Interstate 710, the Long Beach Freeway, south from L.A. as it winds along a good portion of the lower river course, heavy traffic flowing in ten or more lanes, concrete barriers separating one run from the other. Power-cables form yet another kind of course and current for a long stretch, a suspended set of lines streaming above the river and road. At its mouth, not far from where the Queen Mary (the location for some of the filming of The Poseidon Adventure[1]) is moored, the Los Angeles River disappears into San Pedro Bay beneath a low bluff of trade and recreation: a pier, a park, an aquarium, and “Shoreline Village,” an artificial amusement municipality laid out like a broken leg near the Long Beach Marina. Fake Victorian signs top the fronts of an array of shops and eateries lining the olde tyme Boardwalk, an ensemble of the quaint and quirky designed to amuse tourists and relieve them of their lucre: a carousel, “The All American Melodrama Theater and Music Hall,” Village Hat Shop, Pirates Cove (“Booty Is arrr business”), a cigar store. Huge cranes in the distance mark the port and naval complex. Near the rock-pile banks of the river’s last lengths, an RV resort abuts a marine reserve. Just upriver a mile or so, under the Ocean Boulevard Bridge, another sign prohibits boating on (and most other kinds of direct contact with) what it names “The Los Angeles County Flood Control Channel.”

The water through much of this lower section of the river is weedy and green, windblown and slightly tidal, ebbing and flowing slowly in a strangely straight bed about 150 meters wide. Petroleum pipelines cross, as do the bridges of thoroughfares: Shoreline Drive, Anaheim Street, Pacific Coast Highway, Willow Street. Encampments under the bridges and in sections of the river where trees grow on the edge of the bed can have twenty to thirty sites, with sleeping bags, blankets, tarp-tents, laundry, some toys. Great Blue Heron, ducks, Killdeer, and Black-necked Stilts poke around the soft, murky bottom and riprap or concrete banks in the estuarial stretch below Willow Street, and in parts of this section thick bushes and trees have taken root in the river’s sandy margins, creating an almost pastoral setting for what looks almost like a river. Above Willow Street, though, the bed is concrete from bank to bank. Barbed- and razor-wire barriers separate the river from neighborhoods that sit well below the paved path atop the levee, and the river seems nothing if not sequestered, aislado. Painted-over graffiti look like scabs; more recent tags represent some of the river’s occasional visitors: “Bubbles,” “Rascal.” Foam drifts slowly on the viscous surface of the 6-meter wide, precisely engineered low-flow channel that runs in the middle of the concrete bed. Joe Linton writes that it isn’t easy to see this portion of the river “as a ‘real’ river”; local residents are more likely to refer to it as “the sewer” or “aguas negras.”[2] Just as the surrounding cityscape varies considerably in the lower portion of the Los Angeles River—fenced-off trailer-park, restored wetlands, golf course, ramshackle horse-stables, houses tucked under flowering jacaranda and power-cable towers—so do the contents of the channel: sometimes a few centimeters of warm water in the wider bed and up to one’s shins in the low-flow notch, sometimes that notch hardly discernible amid an expansive dark flow. Below the Imperial Highway Bridge, bright-green water with a flotilla of foam pods idles down the cut, the rest of the bed bone-dry.

[1] Pitt and Pitt, Los Angeles A to Z 411.

[2] Linton, Down by the Los Angeles River 127.

{1.3} Taciturn and I have been friends for a long time. We met in college, where I was impressed with his wide-ranging interests, drawn to his easygoing manner, and intrigued by his penchant for the meditations of Marcus Aurelius. He majored in physics and tended to make light of most religions, but Marcus Aurelius he read with a fervor lacking in even the most dedicated of my fellow English majors. Back then, he was clear-sighted but light-hearted, curious, and active, with little time for sitting around watching television or playing Pac-man, preferring instead to shoot pool or go for a hike—a bit of a throwback, really, though open-minded and tolerant of others.

We kept in touch through the years, his occupational path wandering in a direction I could never have predicted. After a distinguished career in a mountain-town Fire-and-Rescue department in Colorado, with all of the duties that entails—swift-water rescue, emergency medical services, conventional firefighting in municipal and backcountry situations—he was invited to undergo the rigorous course of training in Paranormal Fire and Rescue, the “X Files” of emergency services. Rising through the ranks of Paranormal Fire and Rescue, he eventually landed a field-command post in a Special Ops offshoot of swift water rescue. Now the Chief Tactical Technician for the Strange Waters Investigation, Rescue, and Logistics (SWIRL) unit in the Los Angeles Basin, Taciturn probes oddities associated with the rivers and creeks of the basin. Although we have canoed, kayaked, and rafted many a stream together, this is the first time our occupational paths have crossed.

It all began with a phone call.

“Taciturn, why are you calling? Is the telegram office closed?”

“Funny. I have a case that might interest you.” Taciturn paused and cleared his throat. “Thought you might even be able to shed a little light on it for me. Stop and take the best advisers, Marcus Aurelius.”

He said this latter as much to himself as to me, and before I could ask what it meant he continued. “A travel trailer went missing a couple days ago—owners, Chihuahua, and all.”

“I see,” I said, though of course I didn’t see in the least. I asked him first why this wasn’t more of a concern for the police and second what I had to do with stolen recreational vehicles.

“The police don’t want to touch it,” he replied, and cleared his throat again. “They called it ‘weird river stuff’ and wished me good luck.”

“Ah,” I said, “a river angle. The L.A. River, I assume?”

“Yep,” Taciturn confirmed. “And a bookish angle to boot.”

He had said the right thing—the hook was set.

My name is Bromide. I’m a Textual Potamologist.


Posted February 18, 2016 by the meaning of rivers in Uncategorized

One response to “The End of the River: An Experiment

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  1. Finally my fast from musings of textual potomologists has ended! Keep ’em comin bro.

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