The Homeless Ventriloquist by Jim Washburn
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Pershing Square

Less than a minute onto the 101, Lloyd started thinking how easy it would be to just keep going, let the MGB open up on the Harbor Freeway, jostle onto the Santa Monica, and before 1 am his head would be back in the indentation it had left in his pillow that morning.

There wasn’t one thing he didn’t hate about downtown: the buses’ diesel exhaust; the predators; the sheep; the hard-ass cops. Crowds always fearing someone else was having a better time somewhere they weren’t, always pushing on at a wary bustle. Every one of them thinking they had a unique destiny, but viewed from a few floors up, indistinguishable, their individual fidgetings blending in a pattern of ant trails streaming between the subway station anthill and the sugar cube Bullock’s, Broadway, and bars.

Pershing Square was the big zero at the center. Every goober who slouched off a Greyhound bus seeking the California sunshine landed there. As did everyone old with nowhere to go, and the newly roofless for whom the Square was a pit stop to the more settled despair of Skid Row.

Add to that what the downtown cops called the Fruit and Nut brigade: soapbox preachers spilling over with God’s wrath, socialists, antisocialists, war and antiwar factions spoiling to fight, balloon-twisting clowns, civil rights stumpers, Nazis; guys shouting that LBJ killed Kennedy, payback in the secret war between Texas and the Vatican; other guys shouting that maritime law negates the tax code; poets declaiming that the atom bomb is God’s all-knowing eye.

Then, night came early in the Square, shadowed by the surrounding buildings, and out came more queers, cross-dressers, and brisket boys than you could shake a swizzle stick at, with a few hookers for the errant heterosexuals who ventured into the park. It had been a popular homosexual trysting place for decades, with one older vice officer, ex-Army, telling Lloyd “if you arrested every lollipop doing it in the banana trees back then, the whole Pacific fleet would be minus its crew, and officers too.”

Lloyd grew up in La Puente, where his father grew walnuts and asparagus, and had only been to Pershing Square a handful of times in his youth: a few times when his mom got to go shopping at the Broadway; twice with his dad, when he had to wear an itchy blue jacket and clip-on tie and listen to veterans make speeches. He wandered off on his own once, drawn by the soapbox prophets’ frightening rants.

One tall man he liked, because he was able to rattle off a seemingly endless list of nationalities and religions, interspersed with shouting, “All one!” Along with standing on a soapbox, he was selling soap. After a while twelve-year-old Lloyd was his only audience, and the man stepped down and handed him a bottle of liquid soap, telling him, “Go on, take it. It’ll save someone else the trouble of stealing it.” Back at the veterans’ meeting, Lloyd unscrewed the cap, found it smelled like a peppermint stick, and left it sitting under a bench. What’s a boy want soap for?

Parts of the park then were so overgrown with foliage it looked like a Tarzan movie. Wide brick-laid paths lined with benches crossed the park, with a hacienda fountain where they met in the middle. Old people in hats filled the benches under the palms. Most of them never moved the whole while Lloyd was there.

That was then. Bulldozers scraped that park entirely away in 1951. He read somewhere the trees were sold to Walt Disney. A new park was built, but it was only a thin frosting atop a cake that was pure parking garage, the biggest in the United States, if anyone was giving out awards. Ramps went under the park, and they could hide 1,800 cars down there, while, topside, no one could hide anything anymore. Sparse trees in orderly planters now ringed the park, as did a concrete sidewalk, lit by clusters of globes on poles. The interior was just a flat slab of bare lawn. It looked like it had been designed to discourage adventure of any kind.

These changes hadn’t made the news in other cities, though, and vagrants and homosexuals kept pouring in from the hinterlands to the Square. And so locals kept coming to mix with or prey on the fresh meat, and nothing changed, except the people who met in the park walked to neighboring alleys, hotel rooms, or bar restrooms to realize their dreams.

Lloyd had scarcely been back to the park after his childhood, except as a cop, which had made him like it even less. The first time, in 1959, he’d still been a beat cop, and had been loaned to Central Division to take part in a daytime sweep. The Daily News headline read “Pershing Square Bums Hauled In” above an article crowing about the park being made safe for lunch-eaters again. All Lloyd knew was he had no stomach for rousting rumpled, beer-sweating, denture-lost old men.

The other times he’d been working vice, tasked with weeding out the cruisers, hustlers, and penny-ante drug dealers from the others who were merely loitering at 11 pm.

“How am I supposed to distinguish a homosexual suspect?” he’d asked the sergeant in charge.

The man looked at Lloyd contemptuously and said, “If he’s got his dick in your heinie, you’re probably on the right trail.”

Those nights were among the reasons Lloyd transferred off vice to the bunko squad. He could no more imagine kissing or boning a man than he could imagine liking asparagus, but if someone else liked asparagus that was their problem. What’s the point in arresting them for it, then throwing them in an asparagus-packed jail?

Lloyd thought Artie Kane might head to the Square because that’s where a novice hobo would head. He couldn’t see Kane lasting long amidst the cops, hustlers, and muggers. They weren’t going to play pots and pans with him or follow him in a round of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” Personally, he would have preferred that Artie Kane had left the planet in a Gemini rocket, leaving the field to Audrey clear.

He felt wrong enough about feeling that way that got off the 110 at 3rd, pausing on the quiet offramp to pour his vending machine coffee out the window.

Three minutes later he was driving down another ramp, past a sign reading 25-cents each half-hour, $1.50 per 24 hours. Meaning he could eat 10 Snickers bars for what he was paying to park in this hole for an hour, another reason to hate downtown.

The lot was unevenly lit, and had maybe a couple of hundred cars in it, belonging to people in the theaters or bars, working late, or too cheap to pay the Biltmore Hotel parking. Lloyd felt his passenger seat to see if it still had any of Audrey’s warmth in it, and there was a trace.

He locked the doors and took a urine-smelling stairwell up to the Square.

He heard distant bongos. By his feet, pigeons were still awake in the artificial light of the elevator hut, pecking at a potato chip bag. A few feet away, a man was cocooned on a bench in a thin plaid sleeping bag, a beatific look on his face. Two men walked by, their hands unjoining when they saw Lloyd.

The vast lawn was empty, wet from sprinklers, which were still going at the south end of the park. Lloyd didn’t have a plan. He should have photos of Kane, should have business cards. He felt his shirt pocket and at least had a pen and a small notepad. He started walking clockwise around the square’s long rectangle, figuring he’d do the same on the sidewalks across the streets, except for the Biltmore side because vagrants were vigorously chased from there. But then, for all Lloyd or anyone knew, Artie Kane could be staying in the Biltmore, right now looking out a window at Lloyd below, one more bustling ant.

Lloyd did look up at the windows, just in case a head with a bushy wreath of hair was staring back. And he walked smack into someone he’d swear wasn’t in his path a second before. Taking a step back, he was facing a woman or something like one, straightening the curves on her red satin dress, then appraising Lloyd with dead eyes and asking in an affected Caribbean accent, “You want go with me? Nearby here. I suck you so hard sea horses come shooting out your dick.”

“Let’s not and say we did,” Lloyd said, though taken aback, quickly brushing past her. He took long strides, shivering briefly with the cold. The bongo playing was getting louder as he approached the subway building end of the park. It looked like someone there had a fire going in a rubbish can. In the stretch in between there were only a few passersby: a middle-aged man in a too-small houndstooth jacket, frayed at both elbows from numerous falls; a negro man next in African garb, a luscious white woman on his arm, both looking at Lloyd like they dared him to say something about it. Near Beethoven’s statue—which always looked to Lloyd like he was holding a pool cue—he heard footfalls behind him and a man ran by in underpants, grasping a wallet in his hand. Lloyd cast a look back, but no one was following. Life’s grand pageant.

The bongos had stopped before he got to the press of people at the 5th and Hill edge of the park, across from Thrifty Drug. It was a small crowd, but it smelled to Lloyd like it held the sweat of 30 different nations. At the center, two beat cops were quenching the trash fire and telling people to disperse. In the near-dark, a sneering guy next to Lloyd chucked a Coke bottle at one of the cops, missing. Lloyd gave the guy a swift, hard kick to the back of his left knee, dropping him to the pavement, and passed on through the crowd, glad to find he still had what it took.

Down Hill Street, nearing 6th, tough looking young men loitered with intent along the planters. No elderly ventriloquists, unless Kane was wholly hunkered in a sleeping bag, which a few of the vagrants were, like they were practicing for a body bag. Lloyd headed up Olive, completed his circuit, and crossed over to the business side of the streets back up at 5th.

By the General News Agency, a shoeshine stand was still open. Lloyd wasn’t about to start questioning strangers on the street, but he took a seat in the booth and told the aging bootblack, “I’m looking for someone.”

“Well, I’m about as someone as it gets. Been here 32 years, and every shoe comes in like a prayer and leaves like a blessing,” the man said. He’d already gone to work on Lloyd’s without asking. His blue apron had Abraham stitched above the pocket. Lloyd asked if knew who Artie Kane was, mentioning the TV show. Abraham said he didn’t watch TV, that he got all the storytelling he needed from the Bible.

But when Lloyd described Artie, he said, “I’ve seen a lot of men could be him, especially the ‘white’ part. But I saw a man just like you described not four or five days ago. I noticed him because he had a black wood case in one hand looked like a saxophone could be in it, a little suitcase in the other, and he looked lost.”

Lloyd made a mental note to ask Audrey what kind of luggage Artie had. “That could be him, but it’s important: was it four days or five days ago, Monday or Sunday?”

“If I told you I knew, Mister, I’d be lying. Sorry. You some kind of cop?”

“Some kind. Used to be.” Lloyd paid him a quarter and tipped him 50 cents. “Let me give you my phone number. Could you keep an eye out? This is no place for an old guy like him.”

“Tell me about it. This is no place for nobody.”

 Just past the Quality Cafeteria, Lloyd ducked into a bar for a shot of something to warm himself. It had to be nearing closing time, but the narrow bar was smoky and packed. Lloyd had to push his way in sidewise. Before he reached the counter a huge form blocked his way, and the man’s flammable breath was in Lloyd’s face, slurring, “What’s you name?”

The guy looked to be 280 pounds, Apache-Mexican and very drunk. He was surrounded by buddies who all looked like they’d been drinking since the construction whistle blew. The big one repeated, “Whas’ you name?”

“Why?”

“I think it’s ... Custer,” the Indian said, letting out a harsh laugh. Then he leaned over and vomited into a booth. And into his hand, too, because he came up with a handful of barf that he strong-armed straight at Lloyd’s face. He sidestepped, still catching a rasping wet blow to his left ear. The bar noise went up a couple of levels and Lloyd wished he had a few drinks in him, because things were about to hurt.

If there’s one useful thing you learned as a cop, it’s how to drop someone, fast and nasty. While the big guy was still regaining his footing, Lloyd got in four hard, sharp punches to his kidneys, any one of which should have felled the guy. But Lloyd felt like he’d punched an adobe wall, and it had about as much effect. The big Indian clutched him in a bear hug while his friends closed in and started punching.

They were crowded too tight to get a really good blow in, but Lloyd had enough to worry about with this human vomitorium squeezing his guts into a blood pudding. He heard the sickening breath say, “Say g’night” and the guy head-butted him and let go, leaving Lloyd to crumple dumbly to the floor, though he was held in a sitting position by the legs pinioning him, legs that of course started to kick now.

Lloyd heard a whistle and the sound of nightsticks slapping tables. The legs moved away and Lloyd fell fully to the floor, only to be lifted roughly again by three pairs of hands.

When he got his footing and bearings, he saw they were cops. A fourth one covered them with his drawn pistol. They shoved Lloyd out the door, still grabbing him tight.

Once outside, he mumbled, “Thanks.”

“Shut the fuck up.” It was one of the cops from the trash fire. The other one was holding the gun. Lloyd’s arms were pulled behind his back and he was handcuffed tightly. Still grabbing him from both sides, they marched Lloyd across the street—jaywalking, no less—and into the elevator on that side of the Square. Lloyd guessed where they were going.

In the underground parking structure, between the janitors’ closets and the electrical room, the cops kept a couple of Spartan rooms, where they dispensed justice William Parker style. If you were merely picked up on suspicion of being suspicious, you’d be illegally fingerprinted, gently leaned upon, and sent to sin no more. If you’d actually done something to piss the cops off, it wouldn’t go as nice.

That’s where they took him, and where sat the same vice sergeant who’d run the sweeps a few years earlier. He had a red, grainy face, like a human version of corned beef. He looked at Lloyd without recognition and asked the most senior of the cops, “What happened?”

“We were passing by the Heigh-Ho and Cochise and his boys were having a set-to with this guy. Hank thinks he’s the guy threw a bottle at him on 5th earlier.”

The sergeant glared at Lloyd and asked, “Is that what you come down here for?”

“What what are we talking about?”

“The what to get beat up by some gorilla. You one of those fruits who likes to get bruised a little? We can cure you of that.”

“Last time a I checked you didn’t need to be a pervert to get in a fight in this town.”

“I know I’ve seen you down here before. You’re some kind of fag, aren’t you?”

“Why not show me a photo of Steve Reeves and see if I get a hard-on?” Lloyd had heard too much of this shit from the other side of the badge. He was tired, sore, and angry, plus vomit was hanging in globs in his hair. He hadn’t wanted to mention he’d been a cop, but he didn’t like where this was heading. “My name’s Lloyd Sippie. I was a detective on the Westside until two months ago. You can verify that with one phone call. You recognize me because I used to work vice, and worked here on some of your sweeps. They can find timecards for that.

“And you,” Lloyd said to the nearest of the cops who had been at the trash fire, “did you find a guy in a gray windbreaker on the ground near where you saw me? That’s your bottle thrower. I put him down for you.”

“So what are you, the fucking Lone Ranger now?” The sergeant was not impressed. But the two cops averred there had indeed been a windbreakered someone moaning around on the concrete, none of their concern.

The sergeant had one of the others take Lloyd’s wallet and call Division, which confirmed his story, plus, whoever was working the desk added, the word on Lloyd was that he had his head too substantially buried in pussy to ever get up to anything faggoty.

They all had a laugh, but nobody seemed in any hurry to remove Lloyd’s cuffs. The sergeant came from around his desk to get a better look at the barf congealing on his head.

“I guess women aren’t as particular as they were in my day,” he said. “Tell me, Sippie, if you don’t have some compelling deviant purpose for being on my Square at 2 am, just why are you here?”

“I’m a P.I. now. I’m looking for a missing person.”

“Last time I checked, that what we do, while guys like you are screwing the missing person’s family blind. You do what you do, it’s a free country outside this room, but I’m watching you.” The sergeant laid a meaty hand on the right side of Lloyd’s neck and started to squeeze. “You hog our glory and I’ll fuck you. You fuck with our livelihoods and I’ll fuck you. You make my job one iota harder than it already is and I’ll fuck you. You understand, you fucking fuck fuck?”

“Loud and clear.”

“Get this idiot a washcloth and get him out of here.”

One of the cops walked him to his car, no apology, no talk at all. It’s like their Big Kahuna had spoken and there was nothing they’d dare add to his sublime utterance. Lloyd hadn’t quite noticed when he was a cop just how much some cops gave him the creeps. This one stopped six yards from Lloyd’s car as Lloyd kept going. For a second he wondered if the cop was going to shoot him, and his back muscles clenched. Once in his car, he watched the cop in his side view mirror, making sure Lloyd went on his way, and writing down his license plate number.

Lloyd looked at his watch and found it missing from his wrist. He guessed it was around four. When he handed his parking stub to the hopped-up attendant, the bill was $1.50, so he’d been at least three hours. The streets were still, like all the life had been vacuumed up. Even after the last desperate, lonely person was gone, the city itself felt lonely, like an abandoned space station on the moon.

Lloyd found the freeway and headed toward the Pacific, with a prickling sense in the back of his head of an immense fiery sun rolling behind him, just behind the horizon but gaining on it, threatening to reach the crater in Lloyd’s pillow before his head did, and before he could make a heartfelt prayer that the new day would please be nothing like this last one.

 

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Jim Washburn has written for the Los Angeles Times, the Orange County Register, the OC Weekly, various MSN sites and just about anybody else willing to trade a paycheck for a pulse.
jim@fourstory.org

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2010-02-8 by Leslie Sippie

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