by RIP RENSE
WALK IN THE PARK
the scent of freshly ignited crack! Ah, the lyrical smack-addict hooker going about her
vein-piercing art, inches away from a young mother and snoozing babe in papoose pouch! Ah,
the poetic panorama of winos sprawled about like Renoir nudes! Ah, the indelible fragrance of freshly
deposited human fecal matter!
Ah, the great outdoors of
L.A..---specifically, McArthur Park. This was National Public Lands Day, and
I was there to do my altruistic, ecological duty. Never mind that it was
Saturday at 8 a.m.. Never mind the middle-aged geek from L.A. Rec-Parks, chirping and
bounding like a manic Peter Pan:
"HEY! DO YA KNOW WHO MACARTHUR PARK
WAS NAMED FOR?"
(Trick question, you see.)
Never mind that the first
hour and 45 minutes of National Public Lands Day were taken up with blowhards and that wolf-faced
actor from "The Pretender" talking about "how great" all the
volunteers were. Never mind they talked to the volunteers
like they were about sixteen years old.
Never mind that most of the volunteers were
about sixteen years old.
Never mind that a bunch of cynical old
chumps like me had been conscripted by spouses or corporations into helping out. This was a lesson in volunteerism!
Which, I believe, used to be called "civic duty" or "community
So there I was, picking my nose
the TV cameras (deliberately), listening to The Pretender tell the "great" kids how he drives a
hybrid Toyota Prius, which keeps his conscience as clear as the car's
emissions! If only, I thought, it could do the same for the emissions from
Then came some blowhards explaining that
their blowhard councilman and congressman bosses couldn't be there instead, because they
had "other engagements." (Probably involving sleep.) A corporate sponsor
blowhard repeated "how great" everyone was, including "mentors and mentees."
"Mentees?" I said to
my female accomplice. "Isn't that an endangered species in the Florida
The best part of the ceremony came when a
lovely woman stood at the mike and sang Puccini's aria, "O Mio Babbino Caro"
from the opera, "Gianni Schicchi."
It's about a girl asking for her father's permission to marry. Wiser people than me knew
what this had to do with National Public Lands Day.
At last it was time to do
"something green" for downtown's landmark park, a grand place
for parading in your Sunday best, a jewel in the civic crown. . . fifty years ago, when
the name was changed from Westlake to honor Gen. Douglas MacArthur. I volunteered to plant trees
generously donated by Home Depot---until I saw that, gee, there were only about ten little
Jacaranda saplings, and about 40 kids to manhandle them.
I opted to pick up trash instead.
Inhaling deeply of brisk,
urine-perfumed air---I surveyed my objective: the tranquil lake of ducks and geese,
stoic palms, grassy hillocks, the statues of MacArthur, Civil War General Harrison Gray
Otis, sculptures leftover from the 1932 Olympics, the old boat house. . .and plunged
my noble work.
Doing something green, I
quickly found, involved a hell of a lot of something brown. My, the things
that resourceful winos and dope addicts use for toilet paper! Old shirts,
discarded brassieres, cigarette packages, newspaper. I sang the old Richard
Harris hit under my breath. I changed the words:
McArthur Park is reeking in
the dark. . .
My bag swiftly
filled with such stuff, as well as more traditional items like styrofoam
cups and plastic forks---things that will outlast cockroaches,
evolutionarily speaking---plus lots of discarded Christian pamphlets about going to hell, and getting off drugs (evidently
they were not
working.) An innocuous old flannel shirt yielded a hidden treasure: a small
mountain of freshly deposited
human dung. Hey, at least it was bio-degradable!
I suddenly noticed that um, very few
other people were picking up trash---and they were keeping to the main pathways. Seems they knew something I hadn't.
Whistling "O Mio Babbino Caro,"
I shrugged and soldiered on. This was General MacArthur Park, after all. I dragged my bag past a
big pile of old branches, where I noticed an old sneaker sticking out. I bent down to add it to my
booty---until I noticed that it was attached to an emaciated ankle, which was
attached to an emaciated body of a Latino man with a very red face.
"Hola!" I said, conjuring high
school Spanish, "Estas muerto?" ("Are you dead?")
His eyes flew open, startled.
"Si!" he said.
I figured it was best not
I plucked and picked, scooped and
grabbed potato chip bags, McDonald's cups, Starbucks cups, empty lighters,
unidentifiable detritus, etc. from around the decaying statue of MacArthur,
who seemed to be
looking across the lake at a big group of African-American and Latino citizens.
enjoying the beautiful morning, too---by firing up crack pipes and injecting their arms
with heroin. One of them offered to sell me some, as I passed by, but I don't believe in
mixing work and play.
After a while, I ran into a park ranger
who said he doesn't bother the crackheads and mainliners, because he doesn't have
a gun, "and they do---and they'll use 'em, too, because they don't want to
go back to prison."
Pragmatic law enforcement
Yes, it was a fine thing, cleaning up the great
outdoor toilet for hookers and dope addicts and winos---I mean, the great outdoors.
Cheerily saluting my cocaine-toking, booze-swilling, drug-dealing Angeleno brethren. My
heart flushed with civic pride!]
All right, to tell you the truth, it
really didn't. I just couldn't stave off pesky thoughts, like. . .maybe my time would be
more constructively spent by, oh, twiddling my thumbs and drooling. . .and maybe the
"great" kids so enthusiastically cleaning and planting had no idea that their
work was a sad, useless joke. . .and maybe the absent civic and state blowhards should
clean up the dope-dealers, winos, and crackheads, instead of sending their deputies out to
blow smoke about how "great" National Public Lands Day is. . .and maybe the the
thing that needs cleaning is the public, not the "lands". . .and maybe we all
need General MacArthur to come back and kick our asses. . .
Anyhow, when it was time for the
volunteers to stuff their faces with lots of fancy sandwiches and giant cookies in a
self-congratulatory food orgy---while the homeless stared hungrily from a distance---I was
left with but one thought, a paraphrase of the great general himself.
"I shall not return."
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