Sunday, July 21, 1974
626 Santa Monica Blvd,
Santa Monica, California
Just for kicks, and a little pocket money, I've taken a night job this summer with some friends working for a guy named Ed. Ed has a Los Angeles Times distributorship and he doesn't care too much who works for him, as long as they're breathing and willing to work under the table for two dollars an hour.
Once a week, Sunday mornings after midnight, the four of us meet at Ed's shop on Santa Monica Boulevard, downtown between Sixth and Seventh Streets. It's a dumpy ground floor storefront in an old squat brownstone hotel we call "The Thunderbird Palace" in honor of the empties decorating the doorways.
Ed won't show until 6 AM, if he shows at all, so it's just the four of us, ages 13 to 16. Two white guys, one latino, one black. We belong to an exclusive club, The Minions Of Ed, and Ed's filthy hovel of a shop is our clubhouse. We each have a key to the door and an inflated sense of importance.
Our job is simple. The Times drops the Sunday edition off around 2 AM, bundled by sections. We take the sections and assemble a complete paper, tie it up, stick it in a cart, and when the cart is full, roll it out the front door to the curb. The delivery guys show up at 4 AM to unload the carts into their cars and deliver the papers.
The freedom and the sense of illicit adventure is intoxicating and strong. Up all night, no adults, free to goof around as long as we get the papers out the door. We like to smoke, carry on loudly, crank the radio, eat donuts, hamburgers, and drink bad coffee, just like real men.
On this particular morning, I'm standing just outside the front door vestibule, my back to the door, pondering the aroma of urine, wine, disinfectant and concrete in the salty damp air. The other guys are inside, back behind a partition wall, chewing burgers and shouting down each other's mother and father. On the radio, Barry Manilow is begging for Mandy and man, he really needs her today.
I'm taking in the novel experience of seeing the normally bustling street I've known only by day now fast asleep. I'm also puffing on one of my first cigarettes. I'm a Big Man and The Street Is Mine.
The streets are very quiet and dark. Every other streetlight is off. No one is open, except for the burger place two blocks away, and the neighborhood has taken on a decidedly sinister character.
In the shadows across the street, behind black windows and barred doors, is the local army surplus store. By day, this temple of bargain outdoor gear evokes thoughts of sunny days of hiking and camping. But in these dark lonely hours, the shades hiding in the corners only want to tell you that this is indeed the place where the Manson Family went shopping for cutlery.
I find standing here on the edge between light and dark affords a view found nowhere else. This clubhouse of ours, my wiseguy friends carrying on behind me, the radio, the light over my shoulder, the bad coffee, even the cigarette, all work to make this spot a little island of security and warmth in what appears to be a cold and dangerous world of dark and empty things.
It's exactly the kind of place you'd stop to ask for directions if you were lost.
+ - + - +
Taking a sophisticated drag on my smoke, I look down Santa Monica Boulevard to the west, watching the traffic lights blink yellow in a random way, block by block, to end of the street at Ocean Avenue. Proceed with caution. Then to the east, where a block away the traffic light at Lincoln Boulevard continues its work, regulating the flow of phantom traffic.
Nothing going on out here. It's dead.
That truck should be here soon.
Another look to the west. Now I see someone, a man, appear maybe two blocks away, as though he'd just stepped around the corner. He's coming my way.
His stride is slow and even, but stiff. His arms dangle at his side as he moves.
A drunk, probably.
He crosses Sixth Street without looking, chin up, eyes straight ahead.
There is something is a little off about him, but I can't quite put my finger on it. He appears to be wearing some sort of formal attire, maybe a tuxedo or dinner jacket, light shirt, thin tie, and slacks.
His hair is short and dark.
My friends are inside, less than twenty feet behind me, carrying on loudly, still bagging on each other's parents. I'm not worried.
As he approaches, I take in the details;
this guy is in his twenties or early thirties. He's wearing some sort of formal attire, but the cut is ... weird. I'm not an expert on this sort of thing, but it looks like he's wearing clothing from the 1910s or 1920s.
Now he's thirty feet away;
the collar on the shirt is high, tight, and very round, more like a cuff than a collar. The cut of the jacket is just like what I've seen in the local history books. Narrow shoulders, open front, rounded hem. Black satin or silk, I think, smooth and a little shiny.
Twenty feet away;
his hair is cut short in the back, longish on the sides, parted in the middle and combed back, slightly disheveled; a Shemp sort of thing.
Ten feet away;
his slacks are nondescript, a little tight and tapering away at the cuffs.
Then I notice he's not wearing any shoes or socks.
He doesn't seem to notice me. I imagine he's just going to keep right on going.
He stops just beyond the circle of light from the doorway, turns slowly toward me, and becomes as still as a post.
He's not really looking at me, but through me. His eyes are vacant and black, dilated, fixed.
This guy's screwed up on something.
Red Alert Shields Up.
How many steps to the door? Three. My friends are still carrying on inside. Would this guy try something? He doesn't seem to hear th--
Now I notice something else.
This guy's wearing makeup! Bad makeup, too. Lips are painted, he's got some kind foundation on, cheeks rouged, his eyebrows are penciled or something. Overall he has sort of a bluish grey tone. He's also wearing some kind of perfume that smells like stock.*
OK, so now I know I'm dealing with a street freak, out for a walk in the dark, dark night. Go to Yellow Alert Mr. Sulu. This is planet Los Angeles and some species celebrate Halloween year round. If this guy's a professional freak, then he's probably not dangerous. The pros like their freedom.
I know the drill. No fast moves, don't say anything unless spoken to, be casual and if it feels weird, get out of the way. Quickly. Odd thing is, I'm not getting any vibe from this guy. Nothing. At all. But the air sure feels thick right now.
"Pardon me" he whispers.
Maybe he wants a cigarette...
"How far is it to the soldier's cemetery?"
"The V.A. cemetery?" ( ! )
"The soldier's cemetery"
"Uh, it's about 3, 4 miles up the street.
Keep going, turn left on Sepulveda and go to Wilshire"
He slowly turns and moves on. But as goes, he begins muttering to himself:
"It's all over ... It's all over now ... It's all over ..."
And off he goes. I notice that his eyes never moved. Locked.
I watch him cross Seventh, then Lincoln, now walking past the brightly lit Jack-In-The-Box. He doesn't pause or look around or stop, just trudges onward with those limp arms hanging by his sides. Once he gets past the bright lights, the darkness swallows him up and he's gone.
I was really hoping he'd evaporate before my eyes. No such luck.
I go inside and calmly tell my friends what just happened and they bolt outside to see. "He's gone," I yell as they pass. They shuffle back in with mock disappointment. One grabs my shoulders and gives me a brotherly squeeze and a little shake.
"Man, you just saw a Zombie!"
"Zombie? No way man! He saw a ghost!"
"Yeah, you know all 'bout them zombies, boy!... I hear yo MAMA'S a zombie!"
"WHO TOLD YOU!"
"Yo DADDY! He say she so dead in bed, he hasta..."
And faster than 'boo,' the subject changes and the mysterious visitor is forgotten.
Did they believe me? I think so. Do they care? No, not really.
The best thing about being a teenager is the unchallenged feeling that you are going to live forever. Death is a lame fantasy, dude. Life is everything; it's here and it's yours and it never, never ends. Burgers and shouting and profanity and laughter. Later it may be different, but not now. And this is how it should be.
Death, if it exists at all, is for the old and unlucky. Someone and somewhere else. Not us.
The truck arrives, drops off the newspaper sections, and we get to work assembling today's news. The sun will be up before you know it.
+ - + - +
So, did I see a zombie? Of course not. Corpses don't get up and walk around. I'm reasonably sure of this, as it would be difficult to find people to work in the mortuary industry. Cremations would also be far more common.
Was he a ghost? Well, there wasn't anything ghostly about him. He looked as solid as you or I. Odd, extremely odd, but solid. I've heard that ghosts can appear to be solid, but then so do those of us of the more corporeal persuasion, so this leads to no conclusions.
Ghosts are supposed to have special skills, most notably the ability to appear and disappear suddenly. I saw nothing that suggested he had any unusual skills. He walked into view, and out of view, in exactly the same way anyone else would. If he had suddenly appeared or disappeared right before my eyes, then I would have been reasonably sure that I had in fact seen a ghost. But he didn't. He just walked off into the dark.
I think it far more likely that he was simply a freak with an unusual hobby.
Or maybe an actor practicing for a role.
Or perhaps he was the suicidal type who simply likes to dress the part.
Or all of the above. Could be.
This IS Los Angeles we're talking about, you know.
*Stock: a peppery smelling flower, very strong, used primarily for floral arrangements at funerals back in the days before refrigeration was widely available.