I went fishing on Saturday. I went with an old friend. My friend works for a local art college. He was late, because his car wouldn’t start. We would fish the Los Angeles River. I had wanted to fish the Los Angeles River for some time. There is a stretch of river along the freeway that I have driven by enough to notice the couples with their coolers and their rods camped on the steep concrete embankment. When I was young, I was told to call them rods. I had been calling them poles. They weren’t poles; they were rods. I didn’t give it much thought at the time. I just made the switch in my head. Rod is more Biblical, more dignified. Moses had a rod. Pole is sophomoric, ripe for phallic jabs. Rod is little better, but fishing wouldn’t be fishing without the early morning phallic jab.
My fishing vest was dusty and the leather strap on my creel had broken. I’m not sure when it broke. Time and lack of use seemed to be the culprit. I hoped the artificial flies that were in my pouch would suffice. They were mostly dry and small. Most of them were speckled with dried moss. The moss probably came from a stream in Montana. Colorado was also a possibility. The pockets of the vest were filled with random artifacts: a Leatherman, a plastic box of flies, a screw, a nickel, two pennies, matches, loose tobacco, a pipe, a flask (with some very aged whiskey), and silver toenail clippers. I checked pockets and the creases thoroughly. I was looking for spiders. When I was a child, I remember my dad putting on a boot that he hadn’t worn in some time. He whipped the boot off when his toes touched the soft, decaying flesh of a field mouse. Ever since then I have been afraid of creatures hiding in old clothes.
The part of the river we fished runs about three miles down the street from Chavez Ravine. If you were coming from the south, you would exit Stadium Way. There is a path that runs along a portion of the river that the city river gods have decided to let return to its natural state. Cottonwood and sycamore trees fill the middle, their fallen limbs providing shelter and submerged root homes for carp, largemouth bass, and the fathead minnow. In the evening, from a particular spot, you might catch the glow of the Dodger Stadium lights in the ravine. The reflective radiance has a sort of Close Encounters quality. The stadium’s ominous presence exudes the ambient aesthetic of a space ship converted by mortals and permanently parked in the middle of land once teeming with unsuspecting Mexican immigrants. People rarely question its origin anymore. It is what it is: a shrine to the West Coast, a shrine to the gods of fate and destiny.
Rhetoric aside, the house that O’Malley built is a place where good things have happened. Dodger Stadium is the third oldest stadium in major league baseball. It is a space-aged, symmetrically perfect slice of 1960s Southern California pop pie. Dodger Stadium sooths and excites. Because of its fabled history, because of Vin Scully’s silver-tongued oration always hovering, perpetually grinding out of transistor radios, when things are going good, when things are going well with the team, the place makes you feel like Vicks VapoRub smells. These days, things are not going well. People are getting their heads kicked in. Husbands and wives are fighting. Children are crying. It is a depressing time to be a Dodger fan, which is why we decided to fish. It wasn’t the only reason, but it was one of them.
The rivers of America are metaphorical goldmines. They inspire. They move. Their movement is perpetual. There is something pure about their ever-flowing essence. They are like mystical creatures, primordial sharks. Most rivers are alive and good. They provide comfort and a sense of safe solitude. The Los Angeles River, however, is a soulless beast. It is an exposed concrete nerve whose existence is a daily reminder of the decay of the modern city. It is a vessel of sadness. It staggers along like a drunken uncle. It is the shadow of life. Yes, it has begun to grow green in spots, but the majority of its snaked route is covered with the modern markings of the fall: concrete, graffiti, and Styrofoam.
Rivers, even one as seemingly impotent as the Los Angeles, are often violent reflections of their host city. This was entirely evident as we made our way down the steep embankment toward the water’s edge. The morning was cool. A June haze hung over the city. We had a Stanley thermos and two rods. We made our way down a path that led to a broken section of the barrier between the path and the steep concrete embankment. The concrete extended down to an unnatural slab. The slab became our base camp. A fish surfaced nearby as my friend lit a cigarette. Our prospects seemed decent, but I was a little worried that I should have brought gloves. A set of yellow rubber dishwashing gloves would have been perfect. The river yellowed at spots. I didn’t feel that it was safe to touch the water, let alone a fish. The water looked decent in the spots where it was running, but the pools with the Styrofoam cups, the yellowed foam, and the algae growing alongside the half submerged Ralph’s plastic shopping bag painted the picture, told the true L.A. Story, the story of discarded plastic and bottom feeding fish.
I have seen Frank McCourt up close once in my life. It was at Camelback Ranch. I was at Spring Training with a group of friends. Our intent was to watch baseball, drink beer, and participate in a fantasy draft. I have a foggy memory as to the specifics. Frank McCourt had made his way out to the cheap seats, the sloped grass behind the outfield. His appearance was odd. Most of the questions directed his way were generic. Most weren’t really questions. People were just calling his name. They wanted pictures. They wanted him to stand next to their children and smile. I snapped one myself. He did look cool. He was in great shape. I envied his sunglasses and his hairline.
His appearance came right around the time news had begun to surface about his divorce. His sharp, angular face had a certain glow: a greasy melancholic Gatsby-esque sheen. Something seemed a little off. He looked tired. He was wearing a pink shirt. Thinking back, I have to wonder if he knew there was a good chance everything was about to unravel. Even if he had an inkling, I’m not sure he saw it unraveling to the extent that it has. There have been bright spots on the field, but they have been few and far between. The bright spots seem to have happened in spite of, not because of Frank McCourt. I’m not sure if he knew the flood was on its way, though I imagine the metaphorical rain was beginning to pour and the metaphorical Corps of Engineers rattling around his subconscious were probably beginning to alert him that his survival depended on encasing the bed and banks of his soul in concrete.
The Los Angeles River flood of 1938 was a catastrophe of Biblical proportions. Water rose. Water raged. It licked the tops of houses and brought the houses down. There were dozens of deaths. Men, women, and children were crushed. Cars were stranded, left to writhe and succumb in the mud. Though the flooding was the result of heavy, torrential rain, it was the calloused reaction to the otherworldly wrath that caught the ire of the city and brought about the eventual demise of mayor Frank L. Shaw. Frank Shaw’s fatal flaw came when he uttered the following in a national radio interview, “the sun is shining in Southern California and all is well.” All was not well. Five people died when the Lankershim Bridge collapsed. They tumbled into the angry foam. Three children from the same family were caught and washed away. Radio reporters were hysterical. It was rumored that whole cities had been wiped completely off the map.
Frank McCourt’s strained existence pales in comparison to the corruption that spread like river algae through the heart of Frank Shaw’s administration. The problem is that people can live with corruption. People, sadly, have lived with corruption since the dawn of time. It is the detachment from reality that really seems to drive the masses insane. The detachment is the thing that is most upsetting. As major league baseball was stepping in to seize control of the fabled franchise, Frank McCourt stated, “Yeah, I think we have a very, very good team.” The words were almost as unbelievable as Frank Shaw’s utterance. McCourt may not be as corrupt as Shaw was, but his detachment is spot on. The lack of honest, preemptive humility might be the thread that connects the downfall of both men.
The 1938 tragedy prompted the river to be structurally altered. Tragedy often prompts the altering of structure. The concrete embankment, though something of an eyesore, does make it easy to cast. This would be a good thing if fish were plentiful. Research tells me they are. The spot used to be a fertile ground for migrating steelhead. Grizzly bears were known to occasionally come down and pull specimens from the bank. Things change. The grizzly is no longer a Southern California resident, and neither is the steelhead. The ever-changing ebb and flow seems to be the natural order of things. The river seems relatively stable. Though littered with shopping carts and Styrofoam, control is being given back to nature.
Nature can be a fickle entity. Nature doesn’t discriminate. It calls spades spades. Though we saw several fish jump, none took the bait. We were using small dry flies. The flies were old and weathered. I imagine the bottom feeders saw right through our ploy. There is also a good chance they weren’t buying what we were selling. The specks of Montana moss floating off the bits of feather and steel probably threw them off. The beasts were used to a steady diet of trash. All of my research pointed to the fact that the bottom feeders would eat just about anything. I assumed this also included the delicate artificial pairing of feather and steel. I assumed wrong. When you eat garbage, your body adjusts.
It has been a little over a year since I ran into Frank McCourt in Arizona. From what I can tell, he is beginning to look and feel like post-Popeye Robert Evans, a train wreck whose select moments of brilliance have begun to fade. Frank McCourt knows more about business than I ever will, but I think I know more about baseball. I think my palate is more developed. I wouldn’t be a good fan if I didn’t have such arrogant personal assumptions. I know, not so deep down, that this isn’t really the case. Frank McCourt probably does have knowledge and an understanding of his own river. The problem is that, like Frank Shaw, he is more akin to the carp than the once mighty steelhead. Their decisions and their palate reflect the river that runs through their city. They are slow moving, garbage consuming creatures.
We spent some time navigating the concrete, but we didn’t catch anything. We sipped coffee and watched as our respective flies floated, presumably, past the skeptical eyes of the bottom feeders. As a species, their survival has depended on them discerning what trash to eat and what trash to avoid. We left feeling good about our morning. We understood the river seeing it up close. It also helped me understand my relationship with the Dodgers a little bit better. Sometimes it’s good to examine things in the light of history. Sometimes it’s good to experience things from a distance.
Perspective is key to perfection; perspective is key to understanding the entirety of the journey. As we made our way back to our car, we talked about taxidermy and baseball memorabilia. Things we had found in thrift stores. Hidden gems. A Mickey Mantle minor league program. An elephant’s foot. A fox pelt. Items whose greatness lies in an understanding of their existence in light of the passing of time. A baseball team must be viewed in the same way. Its existence, like that of the river, is perpetual, forever changing, wild, and unpredictable. Baseball teams are not bound by people, but by time and forces outside of our understanding. This is why we hold the bottom feeders to the highest standards. This is why we do our best to, at the very least, keep our own palates in check.