Ahh New Year's Eve - time to revisit the measure of things set out to do against those actually done. For me, the comparison is usually more favorable than expected, but still -- anxiety is embedded in my DNA, which is why I always view the coming New Year with overwhelming dread. As the big day approaches, I find myself equally troubled by the burden of how best to celebrate the event itself? Stay in or go out? Big party or intimate gathering? Intoxicated or sober? My wife and I like to avoid these questions entirely. Instead, we wait until the last possible moment, realize its too late to make plans--and besides we don't want to leave the house anyway with all the drunks on the road”and so in a fit of panic, I pick up the phone, invite some friends over, and much to my surprise, there is no shortage of likeminded procrastinators, and so we usually end up having a pretty nice time, although the end result never mitigates the worry, the avoidance, or the sense of anti climax and emotional letdown when the not-so-big moment finally does arrive. A few years ago, though, we did ring the New Year in with a bang---quite literally, in fact.
December 31, 2006. 10:45pm. Our friends have arrived, and I've moved the TV into my daughter's room upstairs, hoping to park the kids in front of it, while downstairs, we grown ups drink champagne and talk it over. All is not going according to plan, however, as the present screening of "The Sound of Music" has been interrupted by the girls screaming, I've been dispatched to see what the hell's going on. Apparently our friends' daughter Daniella wants to wear a pair of my daughter Alexa's pajamas, but she isn't interested in sharing one bit. And so the three of us discuss the difficulty of sharing, go over some possible resolutions, both good and bad. Suddenly, four loud pops ring out just beyond the window. Fireworks, I assume” I am afraid its something else, something worse, because I always think the worst. As I said, anxiety's in my DNA. I hear my wife Nancy on the phone with the police reporting a shooting. This time it actually is the worst, and I find a strange solace in being right for once. Nancy shouts up to get the girls in the stairwell, which I do, in case this shooting becomes a shootout. The girls continue to argue about the pajamas--oh how I envy their childish ignorance. Delicately, I peek through the Venetian blinds, but can't see a thing. Daniella's mom arrives, looking nonplussed, that's good I suppose. I don't ask her any questions, but instead quickly go downstairs. Nancy and Daniella's dad are standing at the door talking to police, who nod and jot down notes. Outside, it's raining now. Numerous conversations go on up and down the block: neighbors talking, police nodding, jotting notes in their notepads. One of the cops is actually demarking the "crime scene" with yellow police tape, it bends around the jacaranda tree in my front yard, and ends at the top of the metal gate which leads to our front door. The girls are downstairs now”they want to know what's wrong. We tell them it's the skunks. For months, our basement has been as the favored meeting place for neighborhood skunks in heat. The sound of skunks mating is no less terrifying than the smell is disgusting. Just two hours ago, I foolishly believed that sex crazed skunks were the scourge of our neighborhood. Now I know better
"There's been some activity down on this street before" -- "What do you mean activity, sir?"
What do I mean? I see Young Hispanic men walking around in front of my house all the time, I assume they are Gang bangers, and it scares me. I feel guilty for being scared, because I know it's a knee jerk reaction, but the fact is I am--scared and pissed. I feel like a racist, and a coward too, and now having said something to the officer, I also feel like an idiot, because I am completely lacking in conviction regarding my fear or my racism, which makes me the worst kind of wanna-be bleeding heart hypocritical bourgeoisie: terrified, outraged, and now extremely wet as the rain continues without end
The girls giggle about those stinky skunks, then convince us to give them each a sip of champagne. They announce they are drunked and stumble upstairs for more Von Trapp Family action. Downstairs, we grownups talk about the shooting and the things that come up are”urban blight, the dangerous world we live in, the stupidity of gangs, and the delicate measure of human life. I cannot shake the feeling that the shooting is a harbinger of doom, some warning of danger soon coming my way. Outside, the rain continues, a downpour providing both fitting soundtrack and mood enhancer for these surreal proceedings. A dark cloud descends inside me as well, and soon I stop talking completely.
A short while later, we grownups head upstairs, hijacking the girls' "Sound of Music" screening just moments before the Nazis arrive on the scene. How appropriate. The families gather 'round the ole TV set to watch Dick Clark's Rocking New Year's Eve, a classic as timeless as Dick Clark himself. The ageless boy wonder is still looking good, despite a recent stroke, but he's slurring his words considerably, and the sight of Ryan Seacrest up there on the podium make everyone shudder as we contemplate what Ringing in the New Year will look like in the future.
There are over a dozen police officers within a hundred feet, and yet I am terrified. And I feel for the cops outside. What a lousy way to spend the holiday. I suggest maybe we offer them some champagne, I'm sure they'll say no. Thanks but we can't drink on duty, nice thought though. And perhaps they'll work that much harder to protect my family in the coming year. I stumble outside, see three cardboard index cards on the wet cement---exhibits a, b and c. I'm careful not to step anywhere near them as I wave my arm to get someone's attention. Whoah, whoah, whoah!! Shouts from all over. Do NOT move! You are walking though the crime scene! Of course I know that. I've watched tv shows before. For God's sake, can you give me just a little credit here? That's when I notice the blood, literally a trail of blood, it doesn't look real, no more than the gunshots sounded real. A few hours ago, that blood was in some kid's body, now its all over my driveway. How's he doing? I ask. Not well a cop answers, don't think he'll make it.
10, 9, 8, 7, 6... I hurry to pour champagne for everyone, even though the ritual seems perfunctory, meaningless. We toast, drink, hug, kiss, the girls sip more champagne and giggle uncontrollably, more drunked now than ever
Later, we are told that our friends' car is parked inside the crime scene perimeter. If the guy dies---and the cops think he will---the ensuing homicide investigation and crime scene report will take several hours to complete. Our friends' car will have to stay where it is overnight. The deed is done, but it's meaning cannot be ascertained just yet. Either it's a shooting or a murder; the outcome completely disconnected from the actual event. This seems strange to me, and sad. I'm annoyed at the inconvenience, as I'll have to drive our friends home later onif the kid doesn't make it.
It turns out this kid was caught slipping to use Police lingo. He's a member of the upstart Rascal gang, who reside south of Glendale Avenue, at war with the venerable Toonervilles they call the north side of Los Feliz Blvd home. My neighborhood happens to be contested territory, a virtual no-fly zone; members of either gang caught in the area are fair game, hence inordinate gunplay despite the rapidly accelerating gentrification. The cops say they're pretty sure this was a standard walk-up shoot. Walk-ups have been in place for a few years now, as the MA (Mexican Mafia) proclaimed a moratorium on drive-by shootings, too much collateral damage, bad PR. So now if you're a Toonerville Cholo and you're in your car, sight a mortal enemy, you need to get out of the car to kill the guy.
At 1:15, it's official. The last shooting of 2005 is the first homicide in 2006---right on our front doorstep. The detectives arrive: Klieg lights, photographs, measurements, men and women stand around in the pouring rain, taking photos, measurements, drinking their coffee. The skunks keep their distance.
I've been in here Portland for just about a month, soaking up the city's local flavor, observing the natives, and generally trying to figure out what makes this place tick. Last week, I think I found the answer, or at least discovered a basic component of "Portland" zeitgeist. Sunday afternoon--I'm in the Pearl District --- and a few thoughts on the Pearl are in order before we proceed. It's the City's old warehouse district, transformed this last decade into a perfect world of gentrified urban living; first came the starving artists, then the gallery spaces, then the hipster bars, the nice restaurants, the fancy boutiques, ridiculously overpriced loft spaces were next, followed by a Whole Foods outlet, (this usually signifies the beginning of the end), some more overpriced lofts, a few national chains and before you know it, the neighborhood is mostly overrun by tourists, the local hipsters have moved on to "cooler" neighborhoods, following in the footsteps of the poor starving artists, who were priced out years ago when the new lofts started going up.
I like the Pearl; its warehouse spaces have been renovated with great aesthetic and architectural integrity, the streets are clean, the neighborhood's full of beautiful parks, and dammit the Whole Foods Outlet (or "Whole Paycheck" as the natives like to say) is incredibly convenient! I am sitting outside Peet's Coffee on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, enjoying my medium drip from the plastic re-usable cup I've just purchased---Portland's eco-friendly locals frown on cups made of wasteful paper; the P.F. Chang's across the street is full of weekenders in from Beaverton and Hillsborough. These suburban interlopers enjoy their dim sum and take in the sights, oblivious to the laconic disdain bequeathed upon them by the very hipsters they watch passing by. Well-to-do residents of the Pearl District on their way to purchase new home furnishings carry beautiful babies in papooses made by local artisans; spaced out do-gooders solicit donations for non-profit just causes; whatever corner spaces remain are taken up by panhandling teenagers with multiple facial piercings and really bad attitudes.
This peaceful urban street scene is suddenly interrupted by a loud CRASH! I look up to see a powder blue Jaguar has jumped the curb directly in front of me, and is now facing down table after table of contented weekend coffee sippers---who have stopped sipping their coffees and are now watching the Jaguar in terrified silence. The driver, an obviously wealthy woman who looked to be in her sixties, wears designer sunglasses, her dyed white/blonde hair is full of streaky highlights, her pancake makeup is blotchy and bronze, her lipstick, much too red, and too hastily applied. Her disheveled appearance is in keeping with her lack of driving skills. My guess is the woman lives in a perpetual state of pharmaceutical sedation---and so she is completely undaunted, unperturbed, and apparently unaware of the awkward position she finds her vehicle in at present. She shifts into reverse, without looking behind her, the engine's underbelly scrapes violently against the curb, then slams down onto the pavement. Slowly, slowly¦she backs the car up, this is the second point of her turnabout maneuver which will eventually postion her into parking space she apparently wants to inhabit. The Jag continues moving backwards, at a diagonal angle, sloooowly, painstakingly---traveling at two, maybe three miles an hour. Yet, despite this driving in reverse with absurdly over-cautious lack of speed, the driver still is not even looking behind her. This is when we onlookers all begin to wonder. She's got to see the truck in her rearview mirror, right? That's why she's going so slowly, but: Will she? Won't she? CRASH!!!! The Jag slams right into the truck's driver side door, then disengages a few moments later, leaving a nice sized dent behind. Amazingly, the woman doesn't seem to notice she hit the truck at all. Instead of looking back to identify the source of the crashing sound, she simply shifts into drive and slowly lurches into her new parking space. Mission accomplished. The woman gets out of the car”never once glancing back at the truck or the dozen or so people now careully watching her every move. The crowd is incredulous, horrified, outraged---even the hipsters are getting upset.
The woman waves, and soon another wealthy looking sixty-something woman in a pink pastel pantsuit and overcooked hair appears, followed by her husband, who is pot-bellied, decked out in beige polyester. Both arms are full of paper bags (disgraceful!) from overpriced Boutiques. Looks like their shopping spree Sunday is coming to an end, and the three of them are ready to head back to Hillsborough or Gresham, or whatever suburban enclave they have crawled out from under. Now, the man gets behind the wheel, the two women sit in the back, preferring a seating arrangement which approximates limousine service. The car pulls away, as a street full of onlookers watch”but not a single person says something, no one makes a move, no one even tries to say a word to the woman or either of her friends”not the hipsters, not the do-gooders, not well-to-do neighborhooders, not the tourists, or the angry teenage panhandlers. Every single one of these people just sits there and watches as the woman escapes the scene of the crime, and gets away scott free. I can't believe my eyes. No one in this city of well-intentioned community oriented, peachy keen super groovy northwesterners makes a move to stop this vehicular menace and her clueless cronies. Is this what Portland's really about? Are people here so polite, so well behaved, so non-confrontational, that they will simply stand by and do absolutely nothing in the face of such unseemly and inexcusable behavior? I'm thinking this town is full of spineless lame-ass hypocrites as I reach for my pen, to jot down the license number I've committed to memory, but before I can pull a sheet of paper from my notepad, at least three people have already approached the truck are are leaving notes of their own upon the dashboard. The Portland picture suddenly becomes a bit clearer now. A few minutes later, the driver of the truck appears and about a half dozen people surround him, and begin supply the guy with all the gory details of the preceding events. He's got the Jaguar's license number and an iphone photo of the woman before he's even had a chance to look at his dented door panel. In no time at all, he's got names and numbers of sixteen witness, received invaluable advice on how to proceed with police reports, insurance adjusters, and body shops. One of the witnesses notices the diving equipment in the cab of the truck, comments on the hobby they apparently share, and invites the guy over to his house for dinner. These Portlanders have somehow managed to turn these wheels of tragedy into a positive experience for everyone. Even the spaced out Jaguar lady has been spared the embarrassment of public humilation and scorn; she'll find out about the fender bender eventually, but at least she'll get to do so in the comfort of her own home. This Portland street scene ends with plenty of smiles, pats on the back, handshakes, hugs and soon everyone's on their way---returning to their perfect world activities on this stunningly beautiful Sunday afternoon.