Desert Southwest

Los Angeles River at Dusk

PHOTO: A drainage that leads to the Los Angeles River.

Paddling and Driving
the Los Angeles River

Notes on exploring the LA River by road and kayak, with notes on my 14 years living in the city.

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Los Angeles River


very Angeleno dreams of it at some point in their life - paddling down the Los Angeles River. The Los Angeles Area, after all, is named after its mission by the river. Mostly a trickle, but quite a run in the winter rain season - districts rise, fall, populations change, urban trends ebb and flow. But the drainage from the snowfall of the San Gabrielanos is a constant. And how could you not want to drift down it all, to look up at your city from its quiet underbelly?

Water is the lifeblood of LA - the city is based on the flow of containers from Los Angeles Harbor, drainages from Central California and the Colorado River. I could never quite put my finger on Los Angeles, but I always thought about it. People who don't know it curse it, writers who write about it glorify its villainy, spit on tinseltown, and admire the glamour all the like. But I had been reading the Qu'ran and considering the river:

As to those who are careful of their duty to their Lord, they shall have gardens beneath which rivers flow, abiding in them; an entertainment from their Lord. (The family of Imran 3:198)

The book, like LA, is often cursed, often worshipped. Like the book, once you read it, you realize it's actually just provincial and self-referential. LA is almost quaint, and its townspeople's innocence is hypnotic: a dreary freakshow in the sun. Paved paradise; America's ugliest city, a Club Med for the homeless. My ten years in the city have been just ordinary day-to-day; with occasional guideposts to remind me that LA is not normal; and that life here is anything but. The city is a mess - a constant confrontation of people, ideas and dreams, and all the cuisines, clubs, organizations and beliefs that fit in the little spaces in between. LA's mess is excusable, because it is unique. But I wouldn't dream this once for Middle America; sprawl's excess impacts the soul, and already the rest of America is beginning to resemble LA.

I was the poorest man in Broad Beach; the western-most edge of Los Angeles, in an elongated town called Malibu. The two hundred fifty dollars ('and water my plants once a week') rent for a small mansion that hung over the rocky ocean shore was hard to pay. I was self-employed with a failing business. I tried to learn how to fish. I never caught anything. I fished over my balcony, fried tuna and chicken on a Hibachi. I read books about the desert, and invited outsiders to drink rum.

My neighbors were well established in the art and film community. Most were miserable. Sometimes I could not sleep - I heard arguments over the drone of the crashing waves. Crashing flowerpots….'You bitch!' Neighbors let me in on the secret - told me which actors were which. None of this meant anything to me - I had quit watching television, and couldn't remember the names of the actors who I had never seen.

One day, I was invited to the neighbors for a hash and bong party.

I was introduced to the guy holding the party. Freddy hid his belly with an oversized Aloha shirt. "Hey Bra!" he said. "Come 'ere, Boozie," he cried, lifting a Yorkshire Terrier off the ground, nuzzling him on the head and saying, "So you're the bra workin' on the boat?"

Yes, I had told Freddy. I told him it was a double-masted Taiwanese ketch that had sustained hurricane damage, but once re-rigged, would be the only teak trawler in Marina Del Rey. I began to tell him about Dave, and the other boat people who lived in the dry-docks.

But Freddy wasn't listening, he was watching the game, and fiddling with his one-hitter. Freddy was well groomed, like his dog, like the bodies of half naked women on the sunny parts of the terraces, who were sifting through a community bowl of Doritos.

Freddy had rolled a large-screen television onto the upper terrace, where four or five guys sat, nursing beers and watching baseball. They did not introduce themselves.