My year as the grim reaper’s intern

Grim statistics:

The person most likely to kill you is you. The second most likely person to kill you is someone who lives with you.

It’s 3 am and I’m an ordinary guy heading to a crime scene in one of L.A’s more dubious come-as-you are neighborhoods. The freeway is quiet and wide open. My old 1990 Toyota Corolla motors on as I psychologically prepare myself for what’s coming up. I slow down as flashing red lights brighten the dark, pre-dawn sky and bring an eerie carnival-like feel to the dirty streets.

The police are out in force, trying to secure a small island of safety with yellow tape and guns. They aren’t welcome here. it’s a neighborhood that’s largely lost the fight against crime. a place where no one flinches at the sound of gun fire. Where cops, when they come, come in force. They do their jobs and quickly leave.

I pull out my identification and sign a log book. “Park anywhere, the bored patrolman says as he moves the barrier. The street is ours. I double park, step out of my car and then head over to a police Sargent who is with a survivor, probably the victim’s mom. She is quiet and lost, overwhelmed.

I introduce myself. “My name is Richard and I’m with the mayors crisis response team. I was asked to come here and offer my assistance. Would you like me to stay?” She stares at me blankly and then nods her head. I ask her if she has called anyone. She hasn’t.

Everyone dies. But if you die in a terrible way, by accident or incident, first responders might call me or a fellow volunteer. We come to be with those who’ve been suddenly left behind: parents, wives, children. We come and try to keep them on track. Lessen their shock. Help them navigate through the first hours. We’re not social workers or psychologists, we’re just neighbors who care.

My goals are simple: ensure physical safety, activate the survivor’s support network, act as an on-scene liaison between the family and first responders, and provide information on psychological and legal resources. But I’m mainly there so they don’t have to be alone for those first numb hours after tragedy has struck.

Horror comes from underestimating reality, from a lack of imagination. it shocks you into a new awareness and out of an old one. I sit with the mom in silence as I have done before with other moms. I know how this will play out. We wait for the coroner. She will ask to see her son or daughter. The coroner will probably say no, attempting to lessen the trauma. Then, together we will watch as the body, her child, now wrapped in plastic like an object, is wheeled out on a metal gurney and loaded into a nondescript white city van.

This is an easy call. There are ones that are much harder, ones that become so horrible, so bizarre, that they seem unreal I won’t speak on those. There are also coincidences: suicide patterns — a death every Tuesday at 9 pm for weeks. Also, deaths occurring at the same location year after year. One time I responded to a call where an old woman had somehow fell and drowned in a shallow fish pond in the back yard. It had maybe six inches of water in it. The name of the street–deep water drive.

The work raises your awareness of death. Brings you closer to the daily body count. In L.A, if there hasn’t been a homicide for three days, it makes the papers. The last time it happened, the no-homicide streak was broken when a man was shot in front of his 12-year-old son. They were waiting in their car to buy a phone from someone they contacted through craigslist. The hardest calls to make are for dead children, especially when the call comes and the child is still alive but is expected to pass away. We often accompany the police or doctor when they go into the waiting room and give the bad news. Reactions vary, we are taught to expect anything and to stand near a door.

So what did I learn after a year of these experiences? When every story had an unhappy ending? I learned that human caring could be potent medicine. That being with someone even a stranger, sometimes not even saying a word, can bring comfort.

Limo driving: Lesson One — Don’t kill your fare

“You just ran a red light!” No limo driver wants to hear that. It’s done. There’s no going back, If  there ever was going to be a tip, it’s gone now. And now my passenger is fearing for her life, I look back. I’m so sorry, I say, She’s actually sweating, silent and in shock. I see her contemplating the door handle. I step on the gas to get us going fast enough so she’ll have second thoughts about jumping out. Burbank Airport is just a few minutes away, maybe three more signals. I want her out as much as she wants out.  We both share that common goal. But not until we get to the airport.

I hear her on the phone. She’s calling a friend and asking if we are going in the right direction. Her friend is reassuring her over the phone and I can tell my customer has somewhat relaxed. She wipes away the thin patina of sweat from her face. ” I think if you go up this street, it’ll take you to the airport” she says, trying to be supportive. I can tell she’s cooling. I drive extra carefully, ignoring the GPS that is contradicting her. “Whatever she wants,” I say to myself. Having a sense of control calms her even more. She recognizes the area and knows she will make her flight. She is a mixture of emotions. I know she could call my boss and complain and that would be that. What do they do to drivers who run red lights and get lost? Probably nothing at the company I work at. But my pride would be shattered.

We turn into the small airport and drive slowly towards the terminal. How much do I owe you? she asks in a tone of tempered rage. I stop the car at the curb. If there is one thing that working  with humans has taught is that no one accepts an apology, they only accept cash “I can’t charge you for this,” I tell her. The woman’s voice changes. She’s taken aback. The story she would tell about the horrible ride now has an unexpected ending. She is off balance.”Really?”  Getting  something for nothing wrestles down her anger. She melts.

I pick up her bag from the trunk and place it on the ground. She grabs the handle and begins to roll it away. Watch the red lights, she tells me in a strangely warm tone.  I tell her to call on us again if she’s brave enough and she smiles. We have an odd moment  and then she vanishes into the airport, her mind preoccupied with the day ahead. I hope she never calls again.

Holiday in Vietnam: Post-war porcine reflections

“They’re going to kill the pig,” Julie said, excitedly. She grabbed Jack’s arm and worked her way to the front of the crowd. Just a few feet in front of them, two men struggled to keep the large male pig still, one man at the head, one at the tail. It was the main event of a ceremony that no one could fully explain to Jack in English.

They were on a small island in a bay near the seaside town of Nha Trang. Julie, an Amerasian, had come back to her hometown for a visit after being in America for about ten years. She had met Jack, an American tourist, two days earlier and invited him to the ceremony.

The scene was illuminated by a large flood light, and the star of the show squealed and defecated in fear. Its owner patted the animal’s big head and calmed it down. Jack noticed how the pig’s mouth curled at the ends, looking like a defiant smile.

The butcher, long killing knife in hand, approached, and the owner, who had raised the animal since it was a piglet, lifted its chin, stretching out its pink neck. The butcher pierced the pig’s throat and slid his silver blade across it in one quick, seamless action. Blood gushed, splashing onto the dusty ground. It spread out in a thick, sticky puddle. When the pig could no longer stand, its two handlers gently laid him on his side. The show was over, and the crowd returned to their conversations, their eating and drinking and their laughter. In the background, pints of blood pumped from the pig’s wound with the slowing rhythm of his weakening heartbeat.

“Now, there’s a pig with a problem,” Julie said.

“Doesn’t this bother you?” Jack asked.

“It sure does. Why did they waste all that blood?”

Jack laughed.

“Here, try one,” she said, holding up a small paper plate of eggrolls.

Jack bit into one. “Pork!” he exclaimed.“How appropriate.”

“Why did they sacrifice the pig?” Jack asked.

“Just so things get better,” I guess.

“Well it didn’t get better for Porky over there.”

“Who knows, maybe he’ll be reincarnated as rock star.”

Jack looked over at the pig. “Maybe.”

“Don’t worry, Jack. Vietnam will always have plenty of pigs. Come on, let’s go set up the lanterns.”

Julie led him to the water where an old boat filled with small paper lanterns was beached. They pushed it into the water and, along with a Vietnamese soldier who would operate the small engine, boarded it. “Why’s he here?” Jack asked quietly. “To prevent people from leaving the country,” Julie replied. Two years ago, someone threw out their lanterns and just kept on going.”

The boat stopped and Julie handed Jack a plastic lighter. Getting the lanterns lit and on the bay wasn’t easy. A slight breeze coming up off the water was just strong enough to blow out the lighter’s flame. The lanterns were small, waxed paper boxes so it was hard for Jack to get his large fingers inside to light the candles. Once he managed to keep them lit, he had to gingerly place them on the bay without them capsizing. His efforts proved endlessly amusing to Julie, who applauded and praised him each time he got one successfully on the water. “You did it!” she would shout playfully. Thankfully, others were also placing lanterns on the water. And soon the bay was aglow with candlelight.

Silently, the two of them took it all in. The hundreds of glowing lanterns competed with the sparks of silver, white moonlight caught by the bay’s ripples. Jack remembered the pig, which reminded him of a hunting trip with his friend one summer when he was in high school. They had driven to the country, leaving the predictable sterile comfort of their suburban homes and neighborhoods behind. Walking through fields and orchards, they proudly held their well-oiled, new shotguns, which were loaded and ready. When something suddenly took flight, they fired. Smart quails would run into the thicket. But the dumb ones took to the air and were usually doomed. Excitedly, they would fire the big guns, blasting a lethal mist of bird shot into the air. Their game dropped like stones.

The trip a success, Bill and Jack drove home, recounting their day and chiding each other along the way, their greasy bag of death in the back seat. But when night fell and Jack was in bed, guilt over the day’s killing slowly drifted into his heart like a coastal fog.

“Earth to Jack.”

Jack snapped out of his memory and saw Julie looking at him and smiling. “Are you still fretting over that pig?” she asked. Jack shook his head. “No, just thinking.”

There was a pause.

“Do you like me, Jack?”

Jack looked at her. She was wearing an expression of anxious vulnerability.

“More than like,” he replied with a smile.

Julie giggled. She pointed at him with her chin, smiled and said. “Good. I more than like you, too.”

She switched benches and sat next to him, so close their hips touched. She placed her head on his shoulder, her long, black satin-soft hair fanned out across his back.



“Where do you think the pig is now?”

“Pig heaven. Where do you think the pig is?”

“I think it’s still over there in the dirt.”

Jack laughed, feeling foolish and overly sentimental.

Pants On


Blog rerun

Originally posted on Confessions of an Albino Roofer:

“Where are your pants?” I awoke with my wife hovering over me. Her voice was strained, schizophrenic, trying to be two things at once: helpful and hurtful. It was Monday and she was going to work. I was sprawled out, pointed at the TV. Her question shocked me for a moment. Where were my pants? But then cool reason settled in. Where ever they were, I didn’t need them. There was nowhere I was going. I hadn’t had a job for a year, hadn’t had an interview for months, try as I may. I closed my eyes. Time was on my side. She would have to leave for work soon.

She fluttered around our house, doing the million tiny tasks required for her departure. Picking out socks, ironing her hair, choosing shoes, choosing a hat, choosing a scarf, looking at her painted lips in the mirror as time drained away…

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There are only three of us in my immediate family, but I shop at Costco. if we need a castle of paper towels or a bottle of shampoo, I go to Costco. it’s not because I am a savvy shopper, a careful consumer or even a half-healed hoarder. I go there because i’m both lonely and hate most human interaction. Costco is my buffer, my go-between, my beard, my chaperone. It protects me from the human race while allowing me limited contact. It gives me the opportunity to be a male Jane Goodall (but without all that messy compassion).

I especially like spying on the many amoebic tribes that spread out and across Costco’s bald, cement floors in a constant search for free samples. Finding their prey, they pounce on the tiny, white-smocked serving women’s little paper cups. Modern gluttony exposed beneath the bright, slaughterhouse lighting.

But the samplers are only one of the huge warped pieces to my Costco fetish. I am weak in the knees for the Somali-style refugee like check outs. Who can deny the excited agitation and excitement that comes from waiting in one of those convoluted lines. It’s addictive–like sky-diving or cheating on your taxes.

I can always rely on a long, drawn out check-out experience at Costco. It’s part of the oversized package. And I love the ever-present puzzled woman who ,while under pressure, forgets how to separate herself from her cart — does she go left and the cart goes right? Or is it the other way around? The rest of us look on, miming our incredulity in a plethora of somatic gestures and eye rolls. Emotions are prickly, but the flabby middle aged cashier in clothes so tight they might be considered explosive, points to the two red signs and calmly explains, as she has for the past five years to countless others, just how customer and cart should be disentangled. The lesson we learn: Costco is patient, like geological erosion.

No matter how dehumanizing Costco tries to be with its stark steel and it’s survivalist-friendly, 12-month portions, it’s mountains of pants and it’s walls of underwear, humanity breaks through. You may have to buy a package of toilet paper as big as your couch, but it’s cheap, and the human circus performs daily.

Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth

Mike Tyson opened his one-man show at the Pantages on Friday, attracting a nearly sold-out crowd. For 90 minutes he laid it all against a backdrop of video clips featuring his old neighborhoods, prize fights and interviews.


How a culture chooses its heroes says a lot about it. Sure, America has its firefighters and police. But we also have our sports stars. Some shine on while others fade away with grace. And then there are stars like Tyson who fall from the sky and hit the earth like a bullet, often becoming more famous for their metioric fall than their metoric rise. 


Believe me, Tyson had to do a lot of strange stuff to overpower his fame as  boxer. Coming out of one of the worst neighborhoods in New York, he became the youngest boxer to win the WBC, WBA and IBF heavyweight titles. It was the rags to riches story we Americans love. Unfortunately, Tyson’s boxing career was not to end on a high note. Fresh out of prison for rape, he entered the ring with Evander Holyfield. Claiming his opponent headbutted him, Tyson bit of a piece of his ear and was suspended from boxing.


As Tyson speaks to us, he often seems as surprised by his life as the rest of us. Self-described as a fat, little kid who was out-of-control in one of the worst areas of New York, his first fight was with the neighborhood bully who took Tyson’s pet pigeon and ripped the bird apart in front of him.From that time on, Tyson discovered he was good at fighting and incorporated it into his other pursuits: robbing and general mayhem. “If you were in our neighborhood,” Tyson told the audience, “we probably would have killed you.” Not exactly a good way to bond with the audence. But Tyson isn’t onstage to apologize.


Tyson is candid during his talk. He shows a 20/20 televison clip where his first wife is bombasting him to Barbara Walters while he quietly sits at her side like a castrated Mastif. Later, he tells the audience about midnight street fights, getting arrested for drugs and then going to prison for a rape he says he did not commit. “She had claimed someone else had raped her just months earlier,” Tyson squeeks like a rabid and deranged Mickey Mouse/Donald Duck crossbreed. But there are no laughs, not even a snicker.


Tyson talks about his time in prison, There he finds Islam and is visited by famous friends, including Brady Bunch mom Florence Henderson.He gets out and soon incarcerated again, this time in a mental instituion for biting off an ear. Even for that he is not repentant. “It was a fight,”he recalls. The other guy was headbutting me.” Tysaon explains all, epents nothing. He had a bad childhood, he has an addiction gene just like his troubled mother. Those who were supposed to help him, hurt him. Tyson’s excuses go on and on.


I don’t quite know what Tyson is trying to say in his show. And it’s not just because of his garbled, falsetto, helium-esque twitters. I almost feel like he’s being manipulated again. That fat child still looking for attention, still looking for the loving home he never had.


Tyson ends by talking about his sobriety, his children in Ivy Leaguge schools and his devotion to being a family man. I see a sparkle in his eye and wonder if that’s the star we had all looked up to. It’s smaller now, more managable, but it still shines bright.. 

Welcome to Mexico: Don’t drink the water, don’t breathe the air


The smell of Mexico City hits me as soon as my redeye flight from L.A. touches down. I imagine a putrefying grease, nauseatingly sweet and tangy to my nostrils. My mind doesn’t want to admit to a culinary attraction. The thick odor triggers both pangs of hunger and guttural convulsions of disgust.

We exit the Aeromexico 737 in fits of starts and stops. Walking through endless corridors, we all look waxy, paled by developing-world florescent lighting. It’s pre-dawn. As we move along, a cadre of airline and security personnel welcome us while suspiciously looking us up and down at the same time.

A few questions, a little bit of paperwork and I’m through customs and in a taxi heading for the Double Tree by Hilton. I look out the window into darkness. The driver speaks to me in Spanish. I understand nothing but agree to everything. Neither of us seems certain we’re going in the right direction but somehow we arrive. I check in. It’s nearly six a.m. but still no sun. I fall asleep, something I couldn’t do on the plane.

Two hours later, a beam of light floods my room from a small gap between two thick curtains. I walk over and pull them apart. The light is blinding. Outside, the architecture ranges from poor to “someone actually lives in that?”. Rusted and torn corrugated roofs are kept in place by large stones. City block after block of jumbled boxes spread out as far as the eye can see, and then vanish in an all engulfing thick, grey smog. Welcome to one of the most populated cities on earth. And the only one that’s actually sinking into the polluted water and mucky remains of an ancient civilization.

Mexico City was originally Tenochtitlan, built on an island in Lake Texcoco by the Aztecs in 1325. But thanks to Cortez, and some unruly neighbors, the city was almost completely destroyed in 1521. And then rebuilt in accordance with Spanish urban standards. The Spanish renamed it Mexico because Tenochtitlan was too hard to pronounce.

Missionaries took to saving souls, which included leveling Aztec shrines and then using them as foundations for catholic churches. The Aztecs’ tradition of cutting the hearts out of living humans and then barbecuing them, was no longer allowed. Of course the hearts weren’t the only things getting sacrificed. Spanish conquerors witnessed decapitations, dismemberment, disemboweling and even skinning. But the Aztecs had a good reason — keeping the cosmos in balance by bathing the earth in human blood.

I get dressed and head out to the lobby where I get the address for the National Anthropology Museum. I hand it to the taxi driver who is confused and tries to confirm the address with me. He speaks no English and simply looks at me and repeats something in Spanish. He does this repeatedly until he feels I have given some tacit approval, and then we’re off into Saturday traffic, hopefully heading for the museum.

We reach a busy, nicer area of the city with trees and space. There are people everywhere. The driver stops and motions to the large building across the street. I see a sign that says museum in English. We made it. I pay and get out.

The museum is huge: two large halls of artifacts. Nearly everything is in Spanish. Inside are entire Aztec temple walls and crypts. There is death and art in every corner. There are baby skeletons and rich grown up skeletons. And then there are countless clay figurines. Everything goes back thousands of years.

The Mexicans seem more at home with death then we are. It pervades their culture, as it should, I suppose. after all, it’s the flip side of life and just as apparent. The Mexicans have no problem with corpses, fresh or fetid. The poor who must rent cemetery space if they can’t afford to buy it, risk having their dearly departed kicked out of their eternal resting places. In fact, one cemetery puts the evicted into a museum where they are depicted in amusing scenes. It’s a popular tourist attraction. The national museum is a little classier.

I read a museum brochure. It explains Mexican history, and includes civilizations in Arizona, New Mexico and California. I am taken aback at first. Those belong to the United States, I think for a moment. But then remember the United States is a late comer, taking those lands in the 1800s. But to be fair, the Mexicans took them from the Spanish earlier. And the Spanish took them from the original inhabitants before that. My head swims. Even Los Angeles, the city where I live, belonged to three different national governments since its inception in 1781. And some people were alive for all three. I leave the museum with its details, dust and death for the airport.

The flight home is aboard Alaska Airlines. The attendants are playful and full of glee. The plane is only about half full so they are taking it easy. It’s a three-hour flight back and soon I am walking through another long hallway to get to U.S. customs and immigration. I make my way through, head out of the airport and hear a taxi driver talking to someone in Spanish. I realize that a line on a map can only change things so much.