I was talking to Alan at the bagel shop one day when he told me he was thinking of killing himself. He’d had enough, he said. He was tired of living on the street. “All around me I’m surrounded by wealth, and I have nothing. Not even a place to wash.”
Alan is a large man, black, early forties. Bald with a mustache. He keeps his appearance well enough that you wouldn’t guess he lived in the alley behind my apartment.
“What do I do?” he asked.
I told him I didn’t know.
“I don’t know either.”
I thought about buying Alan a bagel, but one bagel for him was one less for me, and I wasn’t sure I had enough money to make it through the week. And Alan kind of annoyed me. He was always talking while I tried to read the racing form.
“Can you get me a job?” he asked.
“If I hear of anything.”
I told Bart, owner and proprietor of The Blessed King Bagel Shop, about my conversation with Alan. I knew that Bart often hired some of the homeless in the area to wash dishes or clean up around the shop. That he let them use the shower in the back and gave them whatever bagels were left at the end of the day.
“Fuck ’em,” said Bart. “He’s a hypocrite.”
“How so?” I asked.
“Did you know he wears a dress at night? All day long, he sits in my shop, and it’s ‘faggot this’ and ‘faggot that,’ and then he puts on a dress and rides around town on his bike.”
“What do you make of that?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
Bart is an angry, potato-shaped man, who wears shorts with black socks and sandals beneath his apron. He is angry because he has to open his shop every morning at 2 AM to have the bagels ready for the people who line up to be contestants on The Price is Right. The line winds outside the CBS lot across the street from his store. Fans camp out into the wee hours of the morning wearing T-shirts that say “Pick me Bob” or “Omaha Loves Bob.” The “Bob” they refer to is, of course, Bob Barker, long time host of The Price is Right, a staple on CBS morning television for the last 40 years. And therein lies the problem. Bart’s livelihood depends on the people who line up for The Price is Right, but being that The Price is Right depends on the popularity of its star, Bob Barker, and being that Bob Barker is 85 years old — Bart’s livelihood is anything but secure.
“I got to sell this place before the fucker dies,” Bart often tells me, but he can find no buyer. Add to that three ex-wives, a daughter in college, and a mother in a nursing home, and you can see the man’s dilemma. “I got to get out of here,” he says. “This place is a trap. This place isn’t me.” He insists the store barely breaks even. He never takes a day off. Not even a holiday. Once I saw a rabbi chastise him for remaining open on the Sabbath.
“Rabbi,” said Bart, “I’ll gladly close on shabbos if you pay me what I’d make if I stayed open.”
What Bart really wants to do, more than anything in the world, is have his own radio show where he can talk about religion, specifically Hinduism, the faith he adopted after abandoning his Jewish roots. He often asks me, “How do I get my own show? When are you going to get me a show?”
And I always tell him the same thing: “Talk to Vince.”
Vince is a regular at the bagel shop, a hunched man in a dark suit, who pulls up once a week in a black Mercedes on his way to work. He orders a scooped-out sesame bagel, toasted, with cream cheese and a cup of coffee. His cell phone is never away from his ear. Vince is a player in this town. The real thing. A successful Hollywood agent with an office on Wilshire Boulevard and a house in the hills. He’s 60 years old and 15 minutes from a heart attack.
“Vince don’t want to talk to me,” Bart says. “Vince don’t see nothing that’s not two feet in front of his face.”
Bart wants me to be on the radio show with him, but I want no part of it. For one thing, I’ve never been a fan of talk radio. For another, I think Bart is one of the worst talkers I’ve ever met. He repeats himself constantly, seldom argues coherently and crosses the line with women on a regular basis.
“We can tell people to stop listening to these wackos and evangelists,” he says. “We can tell them to read the Vedas and the Bhagavad-Gita. To stop eating meat and foods that poison their souls.”
One time I came into the bagel shop and Bart was washing coffee off his face because a lady had thrown her cup at him after he made an inappropriate comment.
“I hate this place,” he said. “This place is a trap.”
Alan’s clothes were looking shabbier than usual, and he was rambling on about the government.
“They have a device that alters your perception of space and time,” he said. “It leaves no physical marks that show evidence of torture.”
According to Alan, this device (drug or machine, I didn’t ask) can make a prisoner feel as if he has spent fifty years in solitary confinement when only an hour had actually passed.
“They use it in interrogations,” he said. “They experimented on me when I was in the Army.”
“You ain’t ever been in no Army,” Bart mumbled behind the counter.
According to Alan, this device could also be used to make a prince, somewhere in the Middle East, believe that he is living as a homeless black man in an alley in Los Angeles.
“No violation of the Geneva Convention,” he said. “No marks or bruises. But it’s torture, man. It’s still torture.”
I drive a truck for the coroner’s office. Graveyard shift. I pick up four or five bodies a night. Most of the time, I work South Central and Watts, picking up a lot of OD’s and retired gangbangers. When I arrive at the scene, there’s a crowd that doesn’t leave until I’ve zipped away the body and carried it to the back of the truck. The crowd has a certain respect for the jacket that reads “County Coroner.” Maybe even a fear. My arrival signals the finality of the event. The end of the show.
After my shift, I eat my morning bagel at The Blessed King. I read the paper. Do the crossword puzzle and the Sudoko. Then I go home and sleep. My day begins again around dusk, when I eat an early supper. I read. I listen to music. I go for walks. Some nights, I watch the fights in Inglewood or throw away money at the track.
I started driving for the coroner’s office nine years ago when I was studying law at UCLA. Back then, it was a way to pay for school. I could read between pick-ups and the schedule wouldn’t interfere with my classes. But something I was seeing every night as I made my rounds affected my class work. I found it hard to reconcile the law that I heard spoken of in the lecture halls with the law that I witnessed nightly in the projects and the hospitals. On the freeways and the street. I became disillusioned with the law. Gradually, I stopped attending lectures and neglected my assignments. I separated myself from the other students. Eventually, I dropped out.
Years later, on my 32nd birthday, I put on my County Coroner windbreaker before driving to work and studied what I saw in the mirror. My skin was pale. My face thin. I was underweight with heavy bags under my eyes and gray hairs lingering about my temples. Long ago, I had ceased dating and speaking to friends. Long ago, I had ceased striving toward some social or financial goal. Instead, I’d become content to maintain what little I had. I had made the choice – though I don’t recall making it – to observe from a distance. To contemplate without taking part. To create no victims and offer no assistance. I no longer needed to pick a side or force an issue. I no longer needed to leave some trace of my wanderings in the night. It was enough for me to provide this service. This humble and innocuous service. To pick up bodies. To pick up the discarded shell and move it to where the contestants couldn’t see it, smell it, or trip over it, as they gamboled across the field. To pick up bodies — and make death as if it were never there.
“Vince stopped by today,” Bart told me. He had a glint in his eye. “I told him about my idea for a radio show.”
“What’d he say?” I asked.
“He said to call him at his office. He gave me his card, and told me to call him at his office.”
Bart waved the card like it was a winning ticket. A Trifecta.
“Congratulations,” I said.
“You think he’ll want to set up a meeting?”
“I don’t know.”
“You got to help me with this,” he said. “I got to know what to say at the meeting.”
“Now why would I know what to say at the meeting?”
“Because you’re smart,” he said. “And educated.” He took off his serving gloves and folded his apron. “The show is half yours if you want it.”
I told him I wasn’t interested.
That afternoon, when he got home from the shop, Bart called Vince at his office and left a message with his secretary. A week later he called again and left another message. A week later he did the same. Vince never returned his call.
One night, the dispatcher sent me for a pick-up in Hollywood. A guy got stabbed a block from my apartment. There wasn’t much of a crowd at the scene, just a few detectives and a paramedic with nothing to do. The body looked about my height and weight, Caucasian, with curly hair and a clean shave. He wore black Dickies and a button down shirt, dark with blood. On his face was a look of bewildered disappointment. I got the sense that he spent the last moments of his life cursing his arms for being too short to reach the knife protruding from his back.
“You read the headlines today?” Bart laughed. “GM LAYS OFF 30,000 EMPLOYEES, and then on the other column, ECONOMY SHOWS SIGNS OF IMPROVEMENT.”
But I was reading about the body I’d picked up the night before. According to the article he had been a waiter at The Marmalade Café, a popular restaurant chain with a location in the shopping complex in my neighborhood. According to the article, Marmalade didn’t want to cover their employees’ parking, and if their employees wanted to park in the lot, it would cost them two hours pay. Most of the staff, therefore, left their cars down the block from the bagel shop, a deserted area where the parking was free. That’s where the kid got stabbed. 31 years old. Born in Missouri and educated at Carnegie Mellon. He had come to Hollywood to be an actor. He landed a few roles on a couple of shows. Survived by both parents and a younger sister.
I told Bart he ought to be careful. “Maybe you ought to carry a gun,” I said.
“I should be so lucky if someone would put me out of my misery.”
A thief knows that a bartender or waiter at the end of his shift is carrying cash.
“If I had a radio show,” Bart said, “and we talked on it, you and me, about religion — you don’t think people would listen?”
“Because we don’t know nothing about religion.”
It was a homeless person’s crime. A stabbing. Your more upscale thief would have used a gun. Hold it to a guy’s head and there’s never any struggle. But against a knife, a waiter will fight for his evening’s tips. He’d better fight if he doesn’t want to wind up homeless himself.
“But that’s the point,” Bart said. “What do all these priests and reverends and rabbis know? Why can’t a bagel baker and a coroner talk about religion?”
There was a police sketch of the suspect in the paper. A large black man, bald with a mustache, wearing a hooded sweatshirt.
“Have the police been here yet?” I asked.
“They came this morning.”
“Did you say anything?” I asked. Bart didn’t look up from cutting his tomatoes.
“It’s none of my business.”
I didn’t turn Alan in. Neither did Bart. Vince turned him in.
Vince held court in the bagel shop like he was the mayor of Fairfax Avenue.
“They got him,” he said. “Picked him up yesterday while he was sleeping in the alley.” Vince was off his cell phone for the first time in the years since I’d known him. “Cops called to thank me.” I wondered if they pinned one of those tin stars to his lapel. “I called right away when I saw that picture in The Times,” he said. “Kid was killed on Hayworth. I says to myself, that’s by the bagel shop. Says a black guy with a mustache. Street guy. I make the call. Next thing you know, they picked him up.”
How well Vince’s world worked. Like a well-oiled machine.
“Hey Bart,” I said. “You ever see Alan wear a hooded sweatshirt?”
“Nope,” replied Bart, as he cleaned up a mess behind the counter. “I’ve seen him in a leather jacket and that red sweater he wears.”
“And that red dress,” I added.
“That’s right, I forgot about the dress.”
Vince looked, for a moment, like an eleven-year-old boy in his little league uniform staring out at a rain-drenched diamond.
“What are you talkin’ about?” he asked.
“He wears a dress at night,” I replied, looking down at the racing form.
With his catcher’s mitt and a cap too big for his head.
“You’ve seen him in here,” Vince stated, knocking his knuckle against the table as he prepared to eat his bagel. “Going on about the government and the army and the… the… conspiracies.”
“Because of you, the streets are safe now, Vince.”
I was glad Bart got that one in.
“I see,” said Vince. “Better I should do nothing, like the two of you.” He chewed on his bagel, not content to let the matter lie. “Kid was working for something. Trying to better himself. His position in the world.” He couldn’t wait to swallow and spoke with a mouth full of cream cheese and dough. “You think he wanted to be a waiter? Working those hours, serving people all day, carrying trays and cleaning up tables?” There was an anger overtaking him, with roots both twisted and personal. “They had his picture in the paper,” Vince shouted, “and you did nothing.” His face reddened and his breath fell short. “Two of you did nothing.”
And then his cell phone started ringing.
Alan confessed to the crime. A week later, after he was released, he came back to the bagel shop.
“I got an 87 on my janitorial exam,” he told me. “I’m studying for the next part, and if I pass, I can qualify to work for LA Unified.”
“That’s great news,” I told him.
“They pay seven dollars an hour at LA Unified.”
At work one night, at a crime scene, I asked a detective about the case. He told me the witnesses couldn’t identify Alan in a line-up. The prints on the weapon didn’t match. And while Alan was in custody, a stripper was stabbed on La Brea Boulevard by a black man in a hooded sweatshirt.
“If I pass the next part,” Alan said. “I can get a job somewhere. I can get off the street.”
One of the best sights I ever saw was the look on Vince’s face when he came into the bagel shop and saw me talking to Alan about his janitorial exam. The fucker went white, bobbled his cell phone, and hurried back to his black Mercedes before I could say, “Look Vince! The system works!”
“I can get a bed over at the Y,” said Alan. “Maybe even a room.”
I bought him a bagel that day. Bart said it was a waste. He said Alan would never get off the street.
“This place is a trap,” he said.
I picked up a body on Fairfax Avenue toward the end of my shift. A heart attack. Some woman from Wisconsin waiting on line for The Price is Right. She had a shirt on that said “Pick Me Bob.” She weighed about 250 pounds and held a look on her face like she had attained enlightenment. I told Bart about the look on her face.
“Why shouldn’t she be happy?” he asked. “You think God is only in the temple and the church? You think He isn’t out on the street, wearing a dress or running around town stabbing people with a knife? You think He isn’t in a truck picking up bodies or working inside the walls of a bagel shop?”
I told him I didn’t believe in God.
“And that, my friend, is why you’d be perfect for my radio show.”