Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Two Shrines

This morning I ran an errand in Hollywood. Found a parking space on Vine and crossed it, and then I noticed the wreaths and the flowers. It had to be for James Brown.

There it was, right by his star in the sidewalk. It's on Vine, just north of Sunset Boulevard. It's next to a Borders book store. Two cheap easels with wreaths, ribbons thanking James, and a few candles and written messages. It rained overnight, and the display had gotten drenched.

The first thought was that it was surprisingly small, considering Brown's following. The second thought was this: we arrest people for sleeping on the sidewalk, on grounds that they are obstructing. This display takes up about as much space as a sleeping man.

Coming back from that errand, driving east on Los Feliz Boulevard, I saw an enormous shrine - three times as big as James's - by a tree in front of a gated house. A jogger had stopped to look over the items on display, as if it were a macabre yard sale. Curiosity got to me, so I parked and walked back to the big old tree that had become a memorial.

There were handwritten messages in English and Spanish. Poinsettias and ribbons. Sports jerseys. Baseballs arranged in a crucifix. Many, many candles and votives. Considerately, someone had posted a newspaper clipping cluing passers-by in to what this was about. From the deep gash in the tree's trunk, I had already guessed that a car accident had taken place.

The story is a sad one. A Nissan Maxima full of teenage boys, students at a nearby Catholic school, were driving the boulevard at high speed Wednesday night. The boy driving the car swerved in order to pass a car, lost control of the vehicle, and drove straight into this old tree. For some reason, the car caught fire and the boys were trapped inside. The neighbors emerged from their fortress-houses with buckets of water and garden hoses, but the fire was too hot. The story gets even worse than that: the father of one of the boys had been following them in another car, and he could do nothing but wait for the fire department to arrive while his son died in a vehicle fire right in front of him. Three boys died. One boy survived, and so did the tree.

The shrine included burnt and melted parts from the automobile.

For a moment, it felt as though there was nothing to do but read the tributes. Grieving friends and family members had built a colorful and solemn shrine here. The death of a pop star felt like a remote event, something in a storybook. This was a real event.

As I stood by the exhibit, a woman approached with two grandsons in tow. She spoke to them in Spanish. She had brought them here to see, to hear the story, look at the tree and the melted bumper, to catch the sadness that had been left behind. The boys took it in with big deer eyes.
Wise, wise woman.

And as I finish typing this story, the rain has begun to fall again.


ravnos said...

What a terrible terrible thing to happen. Such events leave a holiday scar forever for the surviving family and friends.

Anonymous said...

that is so horribly tragic. young people dying due to the recklessness of youth is much more tragic than an old man dying.

Anonymous said...

I always feel a pain in my heart when I pass by shrines such as these. Just like Christmas Eve services that I attended - candles were lit at one point for all that had passed away this year. So many people rose to light candles - so much pain, so much sorrow. It put a perspective on my life.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Sad, sad story.
A friend of my father witnessed his son's motorcycle accident - he was driving right behind him. He has been a ghost of himself for years. Loosing your child must be the worst thing in the world, but witnessing it, powerless...

Anonymous said...

jeez louise! how horrible. a very interesting juxtaposition indeed!

accounts such as these make me want to push my car over a cliff and ban them from our home...the idea of James or any child or anyone for that matter in harms way makes me want to hibernate.
BUT that is the way of things is it not? The boys and others who see the shrine and we who read your blog may be getting a reminder we need to a little more cautious, be more in the moment, appreciate and love your loved ones and neighbors for life is so very temporary --- from tragedy so often comes clarity.
oh dear...sorry for running on...
thank you for the beautiful entry.

Hal Johnson said...

A gem of a piece, A. I've long felt dismay at how people will grieve over the deaths of celebrities they don't know while ignoring tragedies in their own back yards. (And thus felt a little embarrassed over how the death of Warren Zevon affected me.)

Anonymous said...

Wonderful blog..thanks so much!