Sunday, May 22, 2011

Culver City, Convenience Stores & Vegas

A Message for Those we Lost
We pulled out Sunday morning without fanfare. No lights flashing, no fire engines blowing their horns; just a few guys heading down the PCH with a 14-foot cross on the back of the truck. Traffic was light. The mist hung low and thick over the coast. Our goal for the day was the Grand Canyon, but our first stop would be Culver City.
Jon’s friend and neighbor Bill Young, a firefighter for the Culver City Fire Department, had invited us to come by Station 3 on our way out of town. There’s no telling what we’ll encounter between the coasts, but as we pulled up we could easily imagine this would prove to be as intimate a gathering as we’d find. Six firemen greeted us, pulling their engines out to serve as a proud backdrop for a modest moment of remembrance. Two bypassers paused with their dog. Jon’s words of thanks and humility could be heard from the other side of four-lane Bristol Parkway.
‘For Captain Steve Rankin,’ said Bill, rolling up a blue uniform shirt and sliding it into the hole in the cross’s side. ‘And for Firefighter Chuck Baird. Rest in peace, gentlemen.’ Captain Young would later touch on Captain Rankin’s line of duty death as well as Mr. Baird’s early passing, these two Culver City tragedies coming just in the last two years.

Skies cleared as the cool morning turned into a hot day in the desert. Jon’s German Shepherd Chief (how fitting) sat quietly in the back of the cab of the pickup. The dry, dusty land rolled by – flatlands and mountains and out-of-the-way places that some people call home. Our goal for the day was Williams, Arizona if not the Grand Canyon itself. But as the town of Phelan and the people we met outside the Chevron and the 7-11 disappeared behind us (I’d said from the beginning I knew we’d meet some of the best people at gas stations and food stops) it was suddenly decided that we would make a pass through Las Vegas. ‘I hate the word juxtaposition,’ Jon said. But there seemed no better word to describe a cross being driven through what our film crew director Jason eloquently noted as ‘America’s great den of iniquity.’

The California desert rose and fell and twisted, and it was easy to forget for a moment the reason we were out there. The mountains beckoned with the promise of perfect solitude. Adam, one of the cameramen on the crew, would say later that a run through those rocky, sandy hills would border on spiritual. (Jon, on the other hand, didn’t see it quite that way.) Joshua trees stood scattered over many square miles, watching us like sentries, or maybe staring like accidental onlookers. They coaxed us to a stop at the side of the road; the scene was too much to capture with simple memory. A tractor trailer honked as we burned the moment in pixels. Then as we pulled back onto I-5 a broken piece of someone’s vehicle found its way into and right through our tire, bringing us to a stop in the dirt off the shoulder once again. Straining to free the spare from its trap under the truck’s chassis I thought it bitterly ironic that just yesterday Jason mentioned how something like a breakdown would add the perfect element of hardship to the journey. Easy for him to say as he would not be the one fixing it.

In Vegas we found ourselves parked outside another convenience store. And just as in Phelan we were approached by a few people too curious not to ask. Gabrielle was only in fourth grade when the towers fell, but even the apparent toll of her time on the streets couldn’t take away from her intensity as she spelled out her thoughts and memories of that day. Her friend Mike had served eighteen years in the Air Force and said, with an ample helping of unprintable words, that Jon was doing something ‘pretty…cool.’ Moments later we were pulling out of the parking lot. ‘Take it easy man, good talking to you!’ Mike needed a moment to remember who these guys in the white pickup with the huge cross on the back were, but suddenly a switch was turned and he was right back with us, tuned into the ‘f-ing spirit of the project.’ In the previous moment Rico, who had just moved to Las Vegas from Harlem a year and a half ago ran his hand over the metal. ‘This is hot,’ he said. ‘Yeah, this is really nice.’ His eyes lit up when we handed him a card with the Journey blog site printed on it. ‘Man, I know some people going to want to see this.’ Rico was from New York; Gabrielle had never been there. Mike had probably been all over in his eighteen years of service. Very different lives. Connected by all the things that day meant and all the things this project represents.

We drove the Vegas Strip three times, the sky growing darker, the lights glowing brighter, reflecting off the cross in the camera’s eye. By the time we hit Boulder Parkway and were headed out of town night had fallen. An hour later we stopped along Route 93, on a paved and sandy dead end turnoff. The blood of faraway Vegas illuminated the horizon with a hazy cloud of light. Up above the stars shone in the black night sky.