Gray Days

Photo by Tim Maxeiner

The news of Space X building its big effing rocket in San Pedro has gone national, global even. It, along with some hot property deals, also led to the predictable headlines about an “upturn for San Pedro.” Maybe, maybe not. As “Marina del Pedro,” an info-rich exhibit currently at the Angels Gate Cultural Center, shows, the efforts to develop this community are as old as the port itself. Curator and artist Tim Maxeiner (discloser: he’s a friend) turned to both historical archives and the contemporary local community to tell the tale of the Port of Los Angeles’s push and pull relationship to nature, industry, people, and business. The German-born egalitarian pulls work from both teens he taught at the Boys and Girls Club and such local artists as Phoebe Barnum and Beth Elliott. I even wrote an essay for it, about waterfront adventures in this whale of a town. The exhibit closes Saturday, with festivities from 3 to 6 p.m. Below is my essay, which will also be in the catalog, available this weekend.

Gray Days

By Evelyn McDonnell

I live on the edge of a forest. It’s five acres large, a potential home to 700 species, and it thrives in winter, when its trunks and leaves stretch high to the sky, swaying back and forth in the ocean currents. Animals feed and hide here in the Giant Kelp: mammals as big as you, who will swim up to your kayak and look you straight in the eye or roll in the water underneath, showing off, or maybe even nursing their young. Schools of fish — sardines or Spanish mackerels — flash silver in the sun, and bright orange garibaldi dart nervously around rock outcroppings, having been pushed out of their nests by crustacean bullies: armored lobsters and their sideway cousins, the crabs.

I live next to one of the busiest ports in the world. Ships laden with containers slip in and out of Angels Gate, like multi-colored skyscrapers moving sideways across the sea. Towering cranes await them, a forest of metal redwoods silhouetted against the mountains, ready to pluck the rectangular boxes off the cargo decks like so many toothpicks hundreds of feet in the air, then stack them neatly on the dock, where they’ll continue their voyage via trains, or trucks — the atoms of the neoliberal capitalist organism continuing their global orbit. Refineries belch smoke in the background, processing the crude black oil pumped up from the bottom of the ocean by the rigs that loom like watchtowers on the southern most edge of my view — the rigs are the south poles, the refineries the north. Between them lie the kelp and the commerce, the dolphins and the dock workers, the whales and the freighters — the urban wild landscape of San Pedro, my adopted home.

            When I was in 9th grade, my drama teacher tasked each student with creating small laminated paper badges that were supposed to define us to our classmates. Mine was split evenly in the middle; on one side were trees, a campfire, animals, and stars; on the other, musical notes, books, people. I love nature and I love culture. Town mouse and country mouse — Eva Gabor and Eddie Albert — battle and cuddle in my soul. For most of my life, I’ve satisfied my split personality over time: getting my wildlife fix during summers in the remote north woods of Upper Michigan on the shores of Gitchee Gumee, then bingeing on punk and poetry and sushi and subways in the concrete jungles of New York, or Providence, or Miami, the rest of the year.

In San Pedro — “where the city meets the sea,” to more politely paraphrase a popular Tshirt here — both sides of my binary get their weekly workout. I howl along with my favorite LA punk band X, “I must not think bad thoughts!”, under a full moon in between the old wooden warehouses that used to be way stations for the city’s fish trade. We ride our bikes home through the marina, listening to lines slapping against masts in the wind and watching for herons. Following my iPhone’s navigation, my Prius drives itself to Rex’s the next morning, where a cappuccino with a drizzled heart lands by geo-location in front of my face and I take half my bacon scrambler and fresh fruit side home with me. Fortified, we hit the water, in kayak or on paddle board or maybe even just skin. Deciding: Inner beach or outer? Is it windy, rough, cold? Sunny, calm, hot? Usually, you see the biggest game in the kelp beds of the open sea. But lately, the guaranteed action has been on the northwest side of the lighthouse that lights the way through the gate to the city of angels. There, she blows!

Knock three times on the ceiling if you see whales. Twice on the pipes if there are dolphins. It’s our signal to Tim, our (surf)boarder downstairs. There’s been a lot of knocking lately. It’s migration time; whales, having given birth in the warm waters of Mexico, are migrating back north. (Badges — they don’t need no stinking badges.) Mostly gray whales, they hug the shoreline, mothers interjecting themselves between the shallow waters and the deep blue, where orcas hunt. There’s a coral reef just off the Point Fermin cliffs, at the end of the kelp forest, close by the big red buoy that groans with the wind and provides a rolling platform for multiple sea lions. Its hard branches are just the ticket for scraping off barnacles — nature’s underwater living whale back scratcher.

The first time I saw a whale from a kayak was as my paddling partner Laurie and I headed out from inner Cabrillo Beach to Angels Gate. As we approached the lighthouse, I spotted a spout just outside, and we watched as a whale swam past, blowing and surfacing. The next time, we saw two blows, mother and calf, and we followed them up the jetty, all the way to the outer beach — a vigorous, exhilarating four-mile paddle. The thrill of seeing a 50-foot animal surface a holler away is indescribable. You understand just how small you are, how infinitesimal your footprint is in the grand scheme of life — even if collectively, as a group, our kind seems to keep fucking it up. The cetaceans have blessed us with their presence a few times now. The thrill never lessens.

This year, for some reason, the whales have not merely swam past the waterway portal. They have swum in.

Let me explain the topography of the whales’ latest watering spot. The Angel’s Gate lighthouse stands sentinel over the entry way to the Port of Los Angeles, with its sloping white concrete walls and black cupola beautifully restored several years ago, sounding its plaintive warning, flashing green and red. It lights the end of a manmade rock jetty that curves out into the Pacific then swings back into shore, connecting to land alongside a fishing pier. The road from the pier separates the port from the Pacific, the inner waterway from the outer. It empties into the Mediterranean-style white stucco and red-roofed edifice of the Cabrillo Beach bathhouse, whose bell tower overlooks the inner beach to the north and the outer to the south. The waters of the inner beach are calmer, protected by the sea wall, but they are also polluted from the adjacent marina and the Port. Typically, when Heal the Bay releases its annual report card for California beaches, the inner beach gets an F — giving Cabrillo a bad name. Making it LA’s best kept secret.

Hop across the road, and you’re at one of the top-rated beaches in Southern California,a consistent A according to Heal the Bay. Granted, a deep channel just off shore and the fierce winds of Hurricane Gulch keep Outer Cabrillo’s water several degrees colder and less inviting than even its northern neighbors. It’s not a great surf beach either — southward facing, here the waves break hard and fast. Cabrillo’s charms are not obvious, but they are deep. It’s a killer spot for windsurfing most afternoons. Cabrillo is one of only two city beaches that have fire pits; it’s where the party’s at. The grunion have been onto Cabrillo’s charms for years, procreating by moonlight by the thousands. The dolphins like to greet the sunrise inside the half circle of Cabrillo Beach. They leap and frolic, throwing a porpoise party.

The waters off San Pedro are becoming a wildlife wonderland. The kelp forest and its inhabitants have rebounded since the years when Superfund toxicity made the three-eyed mutant fish Pedro’s Gaffey Street graffiti mascot. Now you can push your kayak through the seaweed treetops and see schools of bass, bug-eyed garibaldi, swarms of sardines. Harbor seals spiral underneath, or try to hide under kelp camouflage. Sea lions porpoise after food. If you’re lucky, you might catch a whale scratching its back on that handy reef.

I love Cabrillo for its human inhabitants too. I greet them in the mornings, as I walk my dog out to the end of the fishing pier. There are the artists, the women who walk alone, purposeful, thoughtful, imagining. There are the walkers, the group of women who stride quickly to the end of the pier and back — twice maybe, “getting their steps.” There are the Italians — three, four, five, six men — in track suits, speaking rapidly in Italian — though lately, they seem to be feuding, as they don’t all walk together, one or two separated from the pack. I want them to reunite. There’s the sweet couple who knew my dog’s name, Alex, first, and now know mine, but I’m still not sure of theirs. There’s John, the mayor of the pier, who knows everyone, the Italians and the walkers and the artists and the couple, and especially the Japanese fishermen, who always warn me not to let Alex off the leash in case he grabs some bait and winds up with a hook in his mouth. I live in a big city, but I live in a small town called San Pedro.

It’s not paradise. I don’t want to overromanticize it. The smokestacks fill the air with particulates that drop that trademark LA puce haze onto the horizon and leave me with perennial sniffles. The plastic particle boards that dumb city folks choose for logs turn those quaint beach fires into added respiratory headaches. Strange things wash up on shore: packages of meth, birds decapitated in Santeria rituals, diapers and balloons and syringes. Homeless people sometimes take over the fire pits with their shopping carts and plastic bags; even worse are the self-righteous homeful, who chase the dispossessed out without offering an alternative. Bad shit happens at the beach at night: stabbings, gang fights, really loud 80s music played on blown-out speakers at 4 a.m. The violation that pushed my tolerance over the edge was the beautiful sunny morning Alex and I walked down to the beach and saw gang tags spray painted on nearly every surface: banners advertising events at the aquarium, toll booths, the lifeguard station, palm trees, even a house and a truck outside the beach. Dozens of beer bottles had been smashed on the road in front of the lifeguard station, a giant fuck you to the community and its keepers. It was as if a gang of dogs had pissed on everything standing, marking their territory, This is ours.  That day, both sides of Cabrillo earned an F

Photo by Tim Maxeiner

It’s not theirs. It’s all of ours. The walkers and the whales and the fish and the fishermen and the containers and the kayakers.

It was John who first told me about the whales. They swam one Wednesday right up to the pier, surprising the fishermen and putting on a bit of a show. School kids visiting the Cabrillo aquarium got the sight of their lives. It was Valentine’s Day, and the aquarium posted a photo of the telltale heart-shaped blow of a gray whale. They hung around for weeks – or maybe there were different ones, coming in and out: at least one calf and several adults, sometimes rolling in the water just off the walkway, sometimes grabbing lures from guys fishing on the pier, sometimes just visible as far-off heart blows in front of the lighthouse.

The last time I saw them when I was paddling, I was kayaking with two friends. It was a cold, gray morning and a light wind crumpled the steel surface of the water. As soon as we slid our boats into the bay, I saw blows off in the distance. Fighting the chop with our paddles kept us warm as we headed out into the gray. We came across the first whales fairly near the fishing pier, maybe 20 minutes from shore. I heard one exhale as it surfaced and I swung my head to catch its dark back crusted with ivory barnacles break the water about 100 feet away. Beautiful.

We spied more sprays out near the lighthouse — our usual destination on these inner-beach paddles. One … two … three. The closer we got to the lighthouse, the closer we got to the whales — or visa versa. There was one ahead to the right, one to the left, and one coming in behind us. We didn’t know which way to look, where one would come up next; we stopped paddling, letting ourselves drift, trying desperately to capture the moment on our cameras and phones — as if anything could document the feeling of a being as old as you and eight times your size emerging out of one element to inhale another element, then sinking gracefully back down, continuing its journey. Gray whales can stay underwater for several minutes, but here, inside the waters of the Port of Los Angeles, it’s too shallow for deep swims — we never saw any of them “fluke,” or dive so deep that their tail (their fluke) sticks straight into the air.

Eventually the one behind us caught up. Teresa saw the water boiling around her, whale exhales bubbling up from the bottom, and began paddling backwards, feeling suddenly too close. The water to the left of her kayak grew lighter and lighter, until the whale was right next to her, its back an alabaster ridge, like a railing she could have reached out and grabbed onto. I wasn’t sure where to look, at this magnificent beast or at Teresa’s face, wondrous and panicked, as she struggled not to join the whale in the water.

The sun came out, turning the water flat and magical, a sparkling carpet of indigo, violet, and silver, like a flickering impressionist masterpiece. Our new companions rose again and again. “”How does that whale breath smell?” asked the docent of the whale-watching cruise that had come to check out the cetaceans with us. We were part of the tour now: “The first whale is about to come up again right in front of the kayaks,” he told the group of shrieking grade schoolers. His vantage from above let us know where to turn our heads. We marveled as the grays grazed the sea bottom beneath us, spewing out clouds of silt and sand, then just hung out on the surface, their whole bodies visible, fluke to snout, as if whales and humans lived side by side every day. Tourists spend thousands of dollars to kayak with the whales like this in Mexico, and here we were, in the middle of LA, watching them lunch.

It was a glorious sight, and a worrisome one. The whales share the narrow passageway of the gateway to the City of Angels with freighters and cruise ships, fishing boats and ferries. Traffic isn’t going to stop for them. I’ve seen a minke whale that was found dead in the harbor; it had to be dragged onto the shore, where it was dissected and then cut by chainsaws into chunks so it could be disposed of before it rotted. Laurie and I paddled up to where the water turned crimson with blood, stunned by the sight of this magnificent black and white creature being slowly disassembled.

Fortunately, no harm has come to the gray whales of Cabrillo yet this year. And two days after our paddle with them, they were nowhere to be seen. Apparently, having strained all the feed they could from the dubious bottom of our polluted port, they had decided to continue their journey north. As glad as I was to see them, I’m even happier now they’re gone.

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